Public WiFi hotspots have been around for over 15 years. New ones are being created everyday… and are shut down everyday as well. Various state governments in India are in the process of setting up public hotspots as part of their smart cities initiative. The Delhi Government went one step ahead and promised 30 minutes of free Wi-Fi to everyone, everyday. It’s a noble undertaking, but unless they really think it through, it’s unlikely to be more than an election promise that was delivered, but didn’t do anyone any good. Sort of like the BRT.
To put it simply, the problem is a combination of the user experience and funding model.
Hotels that bundle the cost of Wi-Fi in the room rent or large coffee chains that simply write it off as a utility expense like electricity or air-conditioning have a very well defined business model. They know that the revenue earned from their core business (room rent, food and beverages) can be enhanced, or at least sustained by making their location more attractive to customers with free Wi-Fi. Because they know the number of rooms they have, they know the number of visitors they can expect and hence, know how much it will cost to provide a certain quality of Wi-Fi. So, if the cost vs revenue ratio is acceptable, the service is provided and everyone’s happy.
The situation with most other hotspots isn’t so straightforward. Where there’s no clear way to recover the cost of Wi-Fi from other sources, operators attempt to entice customers with a few minutes of free Wi-Fi and then pester them to make an online payment or watch an advertisement. Here’s where the problems start.
Unless we’re just hanging around an airport waiting for a flight to be called or killing time at a coffee shop, most of us don’t have more than a few minutes to spare to sync emails or search the web for a phone number or whatever.
But the experience of connecting, registering, paying, logging in and finally using most public hotspots is so cumbersome and time consuming, that most people don’t bother. Unless the Wi-Fi service is far superior (i.e. faster, cheaper, reliable and convenient), most of us would rather just use the data plan of our mobile phones and be done with it.
The customers don’t use the Wi-Fi beyond the free period and the operators don’t make any money. Everyone loses.
There are ways to make it all work and it has been done before successfully. This article mentioned that Vodafone India might be moving in the right direction. So far, nothing has been announced officially. I guess we’ll just have to wait and watch.