“Do you have free WiFi?”
That’s becoming an increasingly common question for small business owners. And with good reason. Studies show businesses see a 72% success rate in increased sales after implementing free WiFi. Accenture reports that 64% of consumers make a restaurant decision based on WiFi availability.
Reaching out to wireless influencers, we discovered three main areas or focus for business owners who offer, or want to offer free WiFi: security, speed and management. Here’s what they had to say:
Meeting customers’ expectations of blazing fast free WiFi, and keeping your business safe don’t have to be mutually exclusive. According to a dozen experts we consulted, there are a host of best practices and practical considerations that will get small business customers online safely, while protecting data and identities belonging to both parties — customers and businesses.
And it’s not just free WiFi that’s expected; customers expect fast and reliable WiFi as well. Offering slow, glitchy WiFi can be worse than no WiFi at all.
Installing a reliable business network can turn out to be a difficult task that could trip up small business owners. They’re concerned about cyber security risks and lack of control. And there’s the possibility that network administration can take away from their core mission — like selling coffee, or sandwiches — and reflect poorly on their company.
“The biggest challenges I’ve seen with ‘free’ WiFi are security and speed,” says Jeff Cutler, technology consultant and writer. “The best solutions for business owners regarding ‘free’ WiFi are to establish a secondary channel for anyone visiting your facilities. This prevents many security concerns — as the separate network can be monitored and secured apart from the company’s main systems. And it ensures limited lag as the guest network can run on separate servers and be fully controlled by IT.”
Separate networks for administration and public consumption was echoed by several of the experts.
“Free WiFi needs to be completely segregated from the company’s network,” says IDTheftSecurity.com Robert Siciliano, CEO.
Chad Schlotter, Bluelock Solution Architect, joins the chorus with this recommendation: “Keep your internal WiFi hidden and only broadcast your free WiFi. Maintain as much separation from the internal WiFi and the free WiFi as possible and limit the amount of bandwidth available to the free WiFi to not allow those users to consume it all.”
Slow speeds and other glitches in the user experience can reflect badly on the business — almost a “no good deed goes unpunished” scenario. The user experience is key.
“The biggest challenges and glitches I see for SMB’s offering free WiFi are customers who can’t connect or when they do connect can’t get past the captive portal system (the WiFi landing page) to enjoy the Internet,” says technology content consultant David Geer.
Once connected, speed is critical. “To avoid common glitches, SMB’s should adopt best practice approaches to WiFi installation and consider aspects such as sufficient fixed backhaul capacity and suitable locations of access points (not behind pillars) so they are close enough to the users,” says Saul Friedner, associate director, Spectrum Services at LS Telcom. “Also, if SMBs can determine the existing usage of WiFi within the area of their business (best to do this prior to deployment) that will help them know in advance if there is already extensive use and thus likelihood of poor quality of service.”
That pre-installation phase can help assure success, says Tom Hollingsworth, Founder of The Networking Nerd. “It’s important to make sure to offer enough capacity to meet the needs of a growing mobile workforce and customer base without causing issues with airtime contention,” he says.”
Be safe and secure
Rivalling speed for importance to small businesses offering free WiFi is security. From passwords to data protection to guarding against third-party attacks, here are some pointers from our influencers.
System administrator and popular blogger and YouTuber known as Jessassin emphasizes passwords. “One thing I see done incorrectly on public wireless is not having a passcode. Password protection should be considered a critical part of any network rollout.
IDTheftSecurity.com’s Robert Siciliano offers these guidelines:
- “Create a secure WiFi that requires a user name and password to join. This may not prevent all kinds of e-crimes but it’s a start to improve your WiFi network security.”
- “Confirm you are on a business account [with your ISP]: Many small businesses may set up under a personal account because it might be a bit cheaper. But that personal account doesn’t enjoy some of the protection and indemnities that a business account would.”
Free WiFi: Good for Business, But Must be Managed
Small business WiFi is here to stay, and growing. The WiFi Alliance® reports that with more than “3 billion WiFi device shipments expected in 2017 and more than 8 billion devices currently in use around the world,” WiFi is playing a more prominent role in the expanding communications infrastructure, including consumers’ expectations of free, secure and fast access from small businesses.
Says Jeff Cutler, “From coffeehouses to global headquarters, I’ve found most are now facing the reality that all visitors want access to the Web, and providing secure passage to guests' data is often as valuable as protecting your own.”
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