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Free Wi-Fi Versus Paid: Which is Better for Your Business?

By Patricia R. Hume, Chief Commercial Officer, iPass

Patricia R. Hume, Chief Commercial Officer, iPass

We live in a mobile world, where a staggering 4.8 billion people around the world are mobile users. Among those billions, more than one billion are mobile professionals. The United States in particular is seeing astounding growth in its mobile worker population, which is now set to represent three quarters of the total workforce by 2020.The number of mobile professionals in the workforce is expanding even faster in large emerging economies like China, India, and Brazil.

As a CEO of a global firm, it’s obvious to me that every one of those mobile professionals needs to be connected, as increased access to connectivity has been one of the largest drivers of productivity in the global economy over the last 40 years. More than 70 percent of enterprise data is already on some form of mobile device. I believe any manager will echo this point as well: anytime, anywhere access to data and applications makes their employees more effective.

"Mobile professionals tend to gravitate toward free Wi-Fi, which offers the immediate cost advantage over paid Wi-Fi—however, it can present serious cost issues"

The question, then, is how we keep the more than one billion mobile professionals connected to high-speed, high-quality internet, so they can perform the host of business tasks that are crucial to improving company ROI. You are likely aware that everyday tasks such as downloading large presentations, sharing files, transferring video and accessing cloud-based applications and Unified Communications tools each require a significant amount of data.

And when it comes to getting connected, mobile professionals already choose Wi-Fi. They find Wi-Fi faster, cheaper and more reliable than cellular. The data corroborates their preference too. The overcrowding of cellular networks has already lead to major data offload to Wi-Fi, which now carries more than half of all mobile data. That number is expected to jump to 60 percent over the next few years.

However, Wi-Fi’s popularity can also create some challenges for businesses. Mobile professionals tend to gravitate toward free Wi-Fi, which offers the immediate cost advantage over paid Wi-Fi—however, it can present serious cost issues if you don’t educate your end users about its dangers as part of a larger mobile strategy.

Security

Free Wi-Fi, even the seemingly innocuous free Wi-Fi at your hotel, comes with numerous security risks and privacy erosions—from infamous man-in-the-middle attacks to identity spoofing and tracking by ISPs and other entities. That’s because free Wi-Fi networks, unlike paid Wi-Fi, don’t require authorization to access. The openness of free Wi-Fi networks leave your employees vulnerable to data and identity theft, prying eyes as well as software virus and malware infection.

The easiest way for hackers to gain access to a corporate network is by stealing a user's corporate credentials from their mobile device when they’re connected to free Wi-Fi. Those credentials would be secure on paid Wi-Fi.

The popularity of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies compounds the threat of free Wi-Fi as well. In the past, corporate-issued desktops were the norm; and IT controlled software and antivirus applications on those computers as well as established firewalls for the network. But BYOD has changed the security perimeter, placing unknown operating software, applications and possibly even virus infections right onto corporate networks.

This isn’t idle speculation, either. An estimated 37.3 million users worldwide, and 4.5 million Americans, have already fallen victim to phishing, or pharming, attempts, meaning their payment details have been stolen from hacked computers, smartphones or browsers. Just watch the 6 o’clock news and you’ll see that statistic is only the tip of the iceberg—numerous reports indicate digital identity fraud is an increasingly common problem, as hackers and cyber-criminals become ever more adept at stealing data. The damage from those hacks cost companies around $400 billion dollars each year, according to British insurance company Lloyd’s. That should be incentive enough to go with a secure, paid Wi-Fi solution.

Productivity

As a CEO, I’m always looking for ways to improve productivity, and that means keeping my employees connected outside of the office. Contrary to popular opinion, free Wi-Fi is not ubiquitous: locating usable free Wi-Fi hotspots takes effort, which means I lose productive time when my employees are unable to connect. In a software company, when employees can’t connect, they can’t work. And when they can’t work, they don’t contribute.

Actively searching for a usable, free Wi-Fi connection isn’t the only cost associated with free Wi-Fi. Most free Wi-Fi introduces numerous other inconveniences such as pop-ups, spam, session time-outs and slow speeds from congested networks—just think of the free Wi-Fi experience at your local coffee shop. These inconveniences cut directly into productive time.

Similarly, in the numerous locations where free Wi-Fi is limited or non-existent, your business loses even more productive hours. The best example is air travel: if your employees rely solely on free Wi-Fi, they won’t be able to access in-flight Wi-Fi, which always requires payment. The productive time you lose when your team is in the air could be significant, especially if they travel often and for long distances.

Paid Wi-Fi, on the other hand, allows you to stay connected wherever you are. Think of the typical unlimited cellular plan: unlimited data, unlimited devices, and unlimited time. The larger carrier plans cover you pretty thoroughly when you are land bound in the States. With paid Wi-Fi, you are granted access to the terrestrial footprint plus in-flight coverage, plus better quality of service for high bandwidth applications.

Cost

Opting for a paid Wi-Fi plan also helps simplify your mobility expenditures. Just like with unlimited cellular plans, unlimited Wi-Fi gives CFOs and CIOs much-needed visibility into mobile connectivity costs: past, present and future. An added benefit is that employees don’t incur international roaming charges as with 3G/4G plans.

If you rely on free Wi-Fi, you keep those stakeholders in the dark—busy tracking down, then wading through, expense reports for roaming charges, day passes and “freemium” Wi-Fi at airports and hotels.

Quality

On the topic of airport and hotel Wi-Fi, you might be protesting, “aren’t they free anyway?” Well, they actually operate on a two-tier “freemium” model. Airport Wi-Fi requires users to pay if they wish to remain online longer than the 30-minute maximum. Hotel Wi-Fi often necessitates payment for an improved user experience. Although even the top hotel chains offer free Wi-Fi, they reserve high-quality Wi-Fi for their paying customers. And the free Wi-Fi they do dole out is notorious for its low quality, meaning your mobile employees will likely be unable to access cloud-based apps, download video content, or make calls over Wi-Fi.

Conclusion

We all rely heavily on Wi-Fi in our day-to-day lives, especially mobile professionals. As mobile data explodes, accessing reliable Wi-Fi is no longer optional for your mobile professionals. They need to connect to secure, reliable, always-on Wi-Fi, which means putting paid Wi-Fi as the cornerstone of your mobility strategy makes the most sense for your business.