Like most modern folk I both recognize and depend upon the usefulness of free Wi-Fi in public areas, whether in airports, libraries, laundromats or waiting rooms. I've spent many an hour tele-working from my auto mechanic’s lobby over free Wi-Fi connectivity in what would otherwise have been a whole day of lost productivity.
That said I'm concerned at the increasingly ubiquitous trend over the years toward free Wi-Fi everywhere -- particularly in social environments such as restaurants and cafes. I'm nostalgic for the din of conversation or that odd, out-of-context snippet that may trigger some thought or yarn of my own. And the anti-ambiance of vying for a seat in a café full of sensory deprived patrons is unnerving.
But there are problems on both sides of the counter when it comes to offering free Wi-Fi. Shops have to answer for illegal customer downloads of movies or music via peer-to-peer networks on their Wi-Fi connections. Additionally, these businesses wonder how to encourage free Wi-Fi users to become paying customers. The obvious buy-something-or-leave approach often results in injurious reviews of the establishment on Yelp or CitySearch.
Of course, these problems bleed into the enterprise as well. Large enterprise companies often feel they must offer guest wireless networks in addition to separate, more secure employee wireless networks. However, this division of security only works until employees start to use the guest wireless network with company laptops. At that point, the data stored on their laptop becomes potentially vulnerable to any malicious users of the guest wireless network.
And thanks to the recent release of firesheep, the risk of open, unsecured wireless networks has become that much more of a serious security issue. There's now more to consider than just company data, as internet identities are potential targets of malicious Firesheep attackers, who can easily gain access to Facebook or Twitter logins and have full control over users' online information for the duration of their authenticated web sessions.
We may eventually see a day where large corporate enterprises or small businesses feel less pressure to offer a guest wireless network since more end users will have their own personal wireless hotspot in their back pockets, but that could lead to new problems. As the number of personal Wi-Fi hotspot devices increases, the usability of any enterprise/small business 2.4GHz wireless network will decrease proportionally due to the introduction of co-channel interference. And, whether or not all these personal wireless networks will play well together is another story.
In any event, here's my plea to you workaholic or tireless social networkers: close the laptop lid, take out the ear buds and unleash those senses upon your surroundings. After all, how many chance interactions, conversations or gesundheits have you missed because you were glued to your Facebook page? And for the businesses of the world, ask yourselves: is it really necessary to offer anywhere, anytime Wi-Fi access?
This was first published in December 2010