almost 9 years on 2008-04-01

WHY 'FREE' PUBLIC WIFI JUST DOESN'T WORK...


i am currently sitting in dia waiting for a flight to sfo using the airport offered ‘free wireless’ - no grand theme here, just a quick few comments regarding 1. spoofed wifi networks, why do they even exist? what are the implications of a solution? 2. the concept of ‘free wireless’ – why the service level necessarily sucks, why the ad supported model can’t work, and why airports should really be on a ‘pay to play’ model.

1. spoofed networks: when i first opened my laptop i accidentally clicked on a spoof computer-to-computer network “free public wifi” instead of the more official sounding “diafreewifi” (which happened to be the actual airport operated network)…

a. in tons of public places you see spoofs of the network, in this case “free public wifi” – are these actual traps? are there that many people wandering around airports and public places trying to rip information from joe user? why? alternatively, is there something i am missing here as to why there are so many spoof network around?

b. on a grander level, verifying the validity of wifi hotspots before logging on seems like a really huge problem. a smarter spoof would just say “diafreewifi” or “dianetwork” or a thousand other variations which would make it harder for me to pick a real network vs. a spoof network. all anyone has to go on (without getting technical/as far as i know as a semi-savvy user) is the name of the router…

i feel like this is the sort of technical question that engineers must be working on (and i could google and find out if i felt like it)…but i also feel like the answer may end up needing to be that your laptop carries around a registry of verified wifi spots – if this is the solution, it is a bad one – it means that either google or apple or starbucks, or an airport consortium (or some combination) would end up holding more power over access to the net - this already sort of happens…it effectively means no more good samaritans offering their connections up in a way that anyone else would feel good using them… it also means that whoever controls the valid list of wifi spots will be able to extort rents on top of it – not something i am totally against, but there is this tension between the current wild-wild-west where there is always a free connection (but some may do bad bad things to you and your computer) and a controlled, costly, and at best partial list of valid access points.

2. ad suppored 'free wifi' dia made me watch some ad for microsoft office 2007, agree to a ‘terms of use’ which i am totally sure no one has ever read, and then gives me relatively slow connectivity with the annoyance of popping ads at the top of my screen seemingly at random…. i would much rather have paid.

a. with the advent of itunes and streaming media, offering free wifi in public spaces gets expensive fast (or, in reality, the experience of users on the free-wifi net degrades really really fast)– i am sure that the two fourteen-year-olds next to me are hogging an huge amount of the pipe downloading whatever it is that fourteen-year-olds download. it would have been a little tougher if they had needed to ask for mom’s credit card… this problem is worst in airports when everyone is hitting up itunes and amazon to download stuff for their flights - i will admit that i downloaded four movies in the tel-aviv airport last year on free wifi, waiting for a flight – but it was late and everyone else was sleeping…

incidentally, this is exactly the same problem faced by the 2.5/3g wireless internet cards offered by sprint and others – they are awesome until the carriers make them too accessible (too cheap), and then the network gets jammed and those willing to pay more for better connectivity get slammed (and with older service contracts are probably paying more).

b. the ads they are serving me are basically worthless, unless the airport wireless is basing the ads off of what i am viewing…and if they are basing the ads off of what i am doing i am even more freaked out. i have no idea which of the above possibilities is true, because i couldn’t be bothered to read the terms of use they offered to me…i suspect given the level of sophistication of the service provider and the fact that the ads had nothing to do with what i was working on, that it is the former – the ads are untargeted jibberish.

for 25 cent cpms, and zero clickthrough, do you really need to show these ads to me? again, i would have much rather paid… and what if you are collecting the pages i view? in a place like dia the service provider isn’t going to be able to get enough really valid stats on me personally to serve me better ads (unless they integrate with the inevitable personal & portable facebook ad-profile), so it is just going to be junk semi-targeted ads anyway based on a very partial dataset from travelers who are coming through a specific spot once every few weeks (best case scenario). to me, even collecting this stuff ranks on the level of collecting local 'landfills' full of trash information instead of recycling...

in the end, i think that airports should offer, as a rule, pay wireless – and if your flight is massively delayed the airline should buy access for their stranded passengers (after all, way easier and cheaper to placate delayed travelers with a little hulu than to actually keep the airplanes running on schedule)....then again, i just wrote this whole post and then some...'for free'


original swl blogposts and letters 2007-2010