Future of Wi-Fi — an alternative

Preamble

When we all started using Wi-Fi ~10–15 years ago, it looked something like this:

WiFi experience 10+ years ago

You would normally see between zero and 5 Wi-Fi networks, and usually most of them would be either private (for staff) or commercial (you have to pay). With a few unconfigured password-less devices sneaking from time to time (hallelujah!)

Fast forward to 2017 and something like the following is the new normal:

WiFi experience in 2017

We have so many networks everywhere–chances are you have to scroll up and down to find the right one. Almost nobody (except a few dinosaurs like Boingo or Fon) charges for WiFi anymore, we have either private home/office networks or free networks for customers.

SSID

Today everybody understands OMG, WTF and SSID, but just in case, the latter is the Wi-Fi network name you see in the list. Now let’s discuss some of the issues with modern SSIDs:

  • Wi-Fi administrators still include words like “Wi-Fi” in the network name, even though it’s a given that only Wi-Fi networks are listed. If something is in the screenshot above — I can bet my car it’s a Wi-Fi. So why mention it, it’s redundant?
  • Some Wi-Fi networks still say “free”. Two problems with this — first of all, nobody charges for Wi-Fi anymore (except a few dinosaurs mentioned earlier) so it’s redundant. Second, it’s not really free — it’s embedded in the price customer pays for product or service. If a coffee shop advertises “free Wi-Fi”, why not also brag about “free electricity”, “free water”, “free toilet” and so on? 10 years ago it made sense — many networks did indeed beg for money, but today it doesn’t.

Passwords

Unfortunately many Wi-Fi networks today still use passwords–users have to know a password in order to connect. There are a couple of reasons typically behind it — some people still believe it’s safer because of encryption, and businesses only want real paying customers to use Wi-Fi (so much for ‘free Wi-Fi’ :), not some random people.

The first argument is really silly because anybody else can get the same password, waiters will share it willingly with any customer. Once you have the password, you can encrypt/decrypt wireless traffic. Moreover, modern apps and websites use SSL for pretty much everything (companies like Apple even enforce it, a great initiative!) so the traffic is encrypted anyway, there is no need to encrypt it twice.

The second argument has its weaknesses too. Password usually doesn’t change, you can buy a coffee once, get your password and use it forever. You can even tell it to your friends or share it via some global Wi-Fi database app. There is no way Wi-Fi administrators can make sure that everybody who is on the network bought something today.

Moreover, it introduces an extra hassle — customer has to explicitly ask for the password. If it’s a short visit, customer may decide not to bother at all.

Alternative

I would like to propose an alternative implementation and I would love to hear as many opinions as possible.

What if most Wi-Fi networks had the same name?

Sounds weird eh? But think about it–your phone remembers networks by their names and their names only. If all restaurants in your city used the same SSID, your phone would be able to sign on them automatically. You arrive to a place you haven’t visited before, but your phone is already online.

Who cares about the name, after all? All you want is Wi-Fi — fast and quasi-free access to Internet so that your phone doesn’t generate data expense. Let’s say you are in Starbucks and their SSID is “Starbucks”. Does it really make their brand stronger? If there was another network, let’s say “Gloria Jeans” that is twice faster and has a stronger signal, wouldn’t you jump over to it, even though “Starbucks” SSID matches your coffee shop name?

I suspect people don’t care about SSIDs, they just want Wi-Fi

Let’s take a look at a typical carrier (mobile operator) selection menu:

Unlike Wi-Fi list:

  • You only see a few options;
  • You rarely if ever go to this menu. Your phone just remembers which operator to use.

So, what if Wi-Fi experience could be similar?

Imagine, instead of gazillion Wi-Fi names allover the world, there are only 3 or 4. Maybe your home Wi-Fi SSID is the same as your office SSID and is the same as your favourite coffee shop’s SSID. Why not?

Imagine they are not just some names. Imagine a powerful software, a Wi-Fi operator (just like you have mobile operators in the image above) behind it that provides features like user identification, roaming, limits, security and many more.

Imagine your phone automatically connects to Wi-Fi everywhere around the world, and coffee shop owners recognise you and greet you by your name. And maybe even music changes the moment you enter! (totally doable using Spotify)

Switching over to a predefined, static SSID that is backed by a powerful managed Wi-Fi software offers great many possibilities, and, if done right, is a win-win for both business owners and consumers.

Possible issues

I will try to predict and address some of the possible issues with this implementation:

  • “Two venues next to each other have the same SSID now. How to make sure my phone uses the one corresponding to my venue?” Well, your phone chooses an access point with the best signal. In the end, user wants a better signal, not a signal from the place he is drinking coffee at.
  • “By mentioning my business name in the SSID I promote my brand, now that SSIDs are the same people don’t even know it’s my Wi-Fi network”. Well, you don’t write your business name on tissues, or toiler paper, or water pipes. Wi-Fi is quickly becoming a commodity too, who cares?
  • “I am a business owner, why should I even do this?” Business owners can and will receive useful marketing data — way, way more than the would usually get from a typical setup because from now on all users who remember the network connect automatically. Even though SSIDs are the same, the operator distinguishes between devices and only the specific Wi-Fi administrator will get details of his Wi-Fi users.
  • “I am a user, are you going to spy on me everywhere I go, so that I can save a few bucks a month? Am I trading my privacy for my data bill?” This could become a regulated area in the long-term — business owners would get a specific, maybe even anonymised sub-set of data about Wi-Fi users. Moreover, you would be able to participate in decision making, share your opinion, choose music, etc.
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