Shared Wi-Fi: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Posted on May 10, 2016

In 1948 Edmund Gwenn won an Oscar for his role as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. The film reflected a new period of prosperity and optimism in the U.S., not least in its setting of Macy’s department store; a potent symbol of the economic boom.

The telecoms industry was enjoying its own momentum. The idea of a mobile communications network of hexagonal cells had only recently been proposed by Bell Labs engineers, who could not have imagined the smartphones and services that have become commonplace in 2016.

You can get a lot done in 68 years.

The same observation struck the Devicescape Popwifi team as we analyzed data from our recent survey of freely shared Wi-Fi in the U.S.; an amenity which has become very important to smartphone users and customers of numerous brick and mortar brands, including Macy’s.

The survey measured quality and usage of the Wi-Fi shared by leading U.S. retail and service brands, from a sample base of 350,000 Popwifi-enabled smartphones. We discovered that — in the month of November 2015 alone — the top 40 brands by number of unique devices connected delivered a cumulative total of 68 years of Wi-Fi connectivity to our sample base.

Let’s scale that up. Data released by comScore this time last year showed that 187.5 million people in the U.S. own smartphones. Now imagine how many service and retail brand locations — from the largest chains to the smallest independents — offer shared Wi-Fi. Combine those numbers and it becomes clear that the amount of connectivity being provided to U.S. consumers by these brands is mind-boggling.

Our study also revealed that much of this Wi-Fi is very high quality. Popwifi measured Wi-Fi quality on a scale of zero to one*, with anything above 0.6 representing a connection easily able to handle streaming video to a smartphone. The top 40 brands from our survey provided Wi-Fi ranging between 0.61 and 0.96 on our scale.

Restaurant chains BJ’s and Olive Garden led the way, followed by retailers Lowe’s and Michael’s. Coming in at number 5 was the Wi-Fi provided by Macy’s.

While shared Wi-Fi started out as a coffee-shop value-add, the sectors with the best quality Wi-Fi we surveyed were restaurants and fast food chains, followed by department stores, general retail, and grocery chains. Topping their sectors alongside BJ’s, Lowe’s and Macy’s were Taco Bell and Publix.

Every kind of retail and service brand imaginable now offers shared Wi-Fi, eager to meet the ubiquitous and inexhaustible consumer need for connectivity.

Starbucks proved that coffee shops are by no means out of the picture. By comparing overall data volumes with overall time spent connected, Popwifi was able to deduce the locations where smartphone users consumed data most intensively. The result? U.S. smartphone users get more connectivity bang for their Starbucks than at any other leading brand surveyed.

The value of this gift to the end user is significant, if not widely understood. This is free data on a colossal scale, provided at indoor locations where it’s often difficult to get a decent connection to the mobile network. The 68 years of connectivity provided by those top 40 brands delivered 13.5 terabytes of data to our sample base last November.

Reaching for the smartphone has become a reflex action for most people who own one. So numerous are the activities these devices enable — and so fundamental to modern life are the most popular among them — that we often find ourselves phone in hand without having made a conscious decision.

The fact that U.S. consumers are gifted with the underlying connectivity that makes it all possible, for free, at so many locations, is something of a modern miracle — on 34th Street and many thousands more streets across the country.

* Popwifi’s QoS measurement uses a proprietary algorithm which takes into account a number of factors, including stability of connection, RF quality, and throughput. Wi-Fi networks are assigned a QoS score on a scale of zero to one, with one being the best achievable rating. A score of 0.6 represents a good quality Wi-Fi connection.

Why not just compare speed?

Speed is a measure everyone can understand. But the throughput speed delivered by a Wi-Fi network varies tremendously over time, affected by a range of factors. This is why we don’t use speed alone to determine quality, but it remains an important part of the measurement process.