Providing free Wi-Fi gets tricky for businesses

  • Article by: RICK BARRETT , Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
  • Updated: July 9, 2014 - 8:38 PM

Businesses struggle with tech issues, as well as how to generate more sales.

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Maggie Stremel of Chicago worked from her laptop at Stone Creek Coffee in Milwaukee while waiting to catch Amtrak’s Hiawatha train for the 90-mile trip to Chicago.

Photo: Gary Porter • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT,

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In Madison, Wis., where Wi-Fi hot spots often are easier to find than a parking space, you wouldn’t think that a cafe would turn off its wireless Internet connection.

But that’s the case at Madison Sourdough cafe and bakery, where owner David Lehrentz has pulled the plug on Wi-Fi Saturday and Sunday mornings because some customers occupied tables for hours while sipping a latte and surfing the Web — keeping others from getting a table for the cafe’s brunch.

“It’s a tricky thing because you want everyone to feel welcome, but at the same time people should be able to get a place to sit promptly when they come in to spend $50 for a meal for a family of four,” ­Lehrentz said.

Wisconsin has thousands of Wi-Fi hot spots at businesses from coffee shops to campgrounds, where anyone can get online with a laptop computer, tablet or other mobile device, often for free.

Hot spots cover the globe

Worldwide, mobile data growth has boosted the number of hot spots into the millions, with Brazil alone adding about 500,000 wireless access points for the World Cup soccer tournament.

As ubiquitous as free Wi-Fi has become, though, many business owners still don’t offer it, for a variety of reasons, including worries that it encourages some people to hang out at their location for the Internet access while not spending much money.

Time Warner Cable recently commissioned a survey that revealed gaps between the technologies that businesses know would improve their customer experience, and what they are actually doing. The biggest gap was with Wi-Fi, where 80 percent of the businesses surveyed said they believe their customers expect free Internet access — and that it is a top way to attract new customers — but only 43 percent offer it.

“We were surprised by the results of the survey,” said Satya Parimi, a vice president with Time Warner Cable’s division that provides communications services to businesses.

The Wi-Fi gap exists because businesses often are discouraged by the challenges of managing it, sometimes for technical reasons. “They just don’t want to take on situations where things could go wrong,” Parimi said.

For its business customers, Time Warner Cable recently started offering a free Wi-Fi access point installed and managed by the company. The access point comes with its own Internet connection to ensure that public use is kept separate from a business’ private Internet traffic.

How businesses use the Wi-Fi hot spot is up to them, according to Parimi.

“We are not looking to target the end customer directly. Our strategy is to equip the business to make that call,” he said.

Some businesses use hot spots to send advertisements and electronic coupons to customers while they’re hooked up to the wireless connection. They also use the technology to gather data about customers for marketing purposes.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch, so if you are getting a free service from someone, you’re probably agreeing to something in return,” said Thad Nation, executive director of Wired Wisconsin, a nonprofit group focused on telecommunications issues.

“For a large retailer, information is as valuable as anything else,” Nation said. “Businesses wouldn’t offer free Wi-Fi if people didn’t spend money there and keep coming back. They make sure you’re comfortable and have electrical outlets because a happy customer is a repeat customer.”

Wi-Fi hot spots can ease boredom while waiting for a service, such as a dentist appointment, and sometimes they help keep customers at a business longer so they can spend more money.

Some of the growth in hot spot locations has been fueled by more people working in nontraditional settings, including freelance contractors who hang out at coffee shops with a laptop computer and mobile phone as their office tools.

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