The use of Wi-Fi as a customer relationship tool is really starting to fly. To pick three examples on a theme from the news in recent weeks: Numerous airlines are launching in-flight services (with a view to one day replacing costly, heavy in-flight entertainment systems), e-Bay is sponsoring free Wi-Fi at airports in Brazil and, if the reports are on the money, Facebook will be testing airborne Wi-Fi drones in 2015 as a means of distributing internet connectivity to the significant minority who remain beyond the reaches of established networks.
Down on the ground, meanwhile, Coca Cola is turning its South African vending machines into Wi-Fi hotspots to reel in buyers.
There are two trends at play here. On the one hand you have companies that depend on user access – like e-Bay and Facebook – pushing to make that access more widely available and affordable. On the other you have companies that recognize the importance of connectivity from the user’s perspective offering it as a brand enhancer or giveaway inducement.
That, at least, is nothing new. Thirty years ago Coca Cola was giving away yo-yos; now it’s giving away Wi-Fi. There probably aren’t as many kids today interested in learning how to Walk the Dog or do the Flying Saucer. But when those who are have mastered a few tricks, you can bet they’ll want to post a video of themselves by way of celebration. And if they can do that for free while buying a drink, all the better.
What these trends have in common is the commoditization of wireless connectivity. Access is just a ‘thing’ that companies focused on a different end game can dish out, gratis, to enhance their offering in some way.
This is not good news for organizations that have made the provision of wireless access their core business. For connectivity players like mobile operators every Wi-Fi freebie chips away a little more at the central premise that connectivity, in and of itself, is something to which a high value and price can be attached.
The question is: what are they going to do about it?
Resistance doesn’t seem like much of a play. Users will go where they will and do what they do; the days when they had to adapt to the operator’s reality are long gone. Instead operators must adjust to customer behavior and offer them something to enhance their use of wireless data.
Integration is surely the best option. Combining Wi-Fi and cellular into a coherent, managed experience such that the user is automatically and always kept on the best available connection in the moment offers substantially more than be achieved by self-provision. And as the controllers of the cellular experience, mobile operators are well-placed to provide this. For all the myriad Wi-Fi connections in the world, after all, mobile operators remain the undisputed leaders in the provision of wireless access.
Left alone—ignored, even—Wi-Fi represents the threat of reduced relevance for mobile operators. But embraced and enhanced, Wi-Fi is an opportunity for expansion of influence.
Carrier Wi-Fi deployments go some way to addressing this but the risk is that they simply attempt to extend a traditional, closed network operational model to a different bearer. Moreover carrier Wi-Fi is limited in scope; hardly surprising when you consider the number of locations needed to provide widespread access.
To fully embrace Wi-Fi, to see it as the user sees it, must be to manage the user’s experience of every Wi-Fi and cellular connection available. That means making sure the quality is good enough, making sure the connection is secure and moving the user whenever these and other core thresholds aren’t being met.
Discrimination by experience makes sense; discrimination by technology is dangerously out of touch.
Anyone can offer free Wi-Fi, a reality borne out by the explosion in available access. But it takes a specialist to deliver a fully automated, managed service that prioritizes quality and safety of experience, across cellular and Wi-Fi of all kinds.
It seems likely that, with every new generation of smartphone users, the consumer view of wireless access will get increasingly homogenized. And as the most powerful brands in the world look to exploit that by addressing the need themselves, traditional operators are going to have to do a lot more with their core competence to keep themselves up in the rarefied air.