Today public WiFi is beyond ubiquitous -- it's at the point where users become frustrated whenever they find themselves out of range. But that doesn't mean that most hotspots are well-run. While they offer convenience, ease of use, and speed, public WiFi is also risky, with unencrypted connections, availability and performance problems, and inconsistent requirements for sign-up and data capture.
How can administrators make public WiFi more functional and secure? Here are five ways you can make your network a safe, stable, and friendly environment:
1. Make it easy to join the network
To many business managers, it seems perfectly reasonable to seize the opportunity and use your public WiFi network to collect data on customers. The business can then rigorously promote the company to an obviously interested audience -- right?
Wrong. The more onerous you make the sign-in process, the more you chase customers away. For example, a major airport in the United Kingdom is notorious for collecting customer data through a captive portal and regularly spamming travelers thereafter. Other installations provide only limited network time before forcing users to sign in again, provide more information, or even pay a fee. While there is nothing wrong with offering an opt-in, it's important not to abuse the privilege of having customers in your network environment.
On the other hand, sign-on can be a great moment to build customer relationships. For example, a new Major League Soccer stadium in California provides a simple, easy log-on. After attending their first game, customers will never have to sign in again. As well, one-click options (like those that draft off the back of Facebook or Google) make it easy to log in while allowing you to learn more about your customers.
Ultimately it all comes down to simplicity: WiFi must be easy to use, or your customers will give up and stay on LTE.
2. Encrypt the network
The most critical security issue with public WiFi is the lack of encryption. This is your responsibility as a network administrator -- too many operators focus on minimizing calls to the support desk. This keeps workloads manageable, but also means that your network is easy to access. In fact, one major hotel chain recently got so tired of providing customer support that they just opened up the whole system. It's easier, of course, but it's also now at risk for users not using a virtual private network (VPN).
However, new capabilities are becoming available. IT administrators can offer their users "encrypted local WiFi" solutions, personal encryption that allows them to create secure personal networks among multiple devices from any location. This also blocks all traffic between users in the network -- critical to blocking malicious sniffers. Even two customers sitting side-by-side will not be able to listen in on each other.
3. Prioritize your traffic
Another step to assuring optimal WiFi performance is to set policies that prioritize your traffic. Few users realize that much of their signal is used on background housekeeping such as synching apps like DropBox or Apple Updater. A case in point: Administrators at the Sochi Olympics in 2014 struggled with a dramatic traffic sink during the opening ceremonies as photos were automatically backed up to the cloud.
Setting your policies to give priority to voice calls, texts, video streaming, or whatever preferred application assures better traffic performance.
4. Provide enough coverage
You also need to have enough signal coverage through WiFi access points. Your WiFi vendor should be able to provide you with a good analysis of your space to calculate how many are needed. In a large space, you might need one access point for every 100 users, assuming that 10% to 20% of them are using the network at any one time. However, there are many variables, including the shape of the space and amount of interference. Therefore, it is best to get a professional assessment at the time of deployment.
5. Size your pipe to your need
Finally, make sure that the basics are in place with adequate backhaul. A public site recently installed a well-planned network with good signal and coverage in preparation for a major trade show. This should have worked -- except that the solution was backed by just a 1 GB connection for the entire conference.
Network availability and performance depends on having a large enough pipe to the Internet. If you can offer only low throughput per user, you are going to have dissatisfied customers.
The concept of public WiFi is a new one in our society, and we are still figuring out how to do this well. Network operators are learning how to set up systems they've never set up before, and think about issues they've never addressed. But WiFi is here to stay, and you can achieve new levels of customer satisfaction and long-term benefits by implementing a powerful, stable, public environment.