Does free wi-fi have a future?

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This article appeared in the January issue of CRN magazine.

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Does free wi-fi have a future?

Mid 2012, four of Sydney’s most recognisable shopping icons started offering free high-speed wi-fi, allowing customers to get online using their tablets, smartphone and laptops. 

Delivered in partnership between Ruckus Wireless, BigAir and digital marketing specialists SkyFii, phase one of the project was rolled out to the Queen Victoria Building and The Galeries, with the nearby Chifley Plaza and The Strand Arcade coming online later in September. 

All four shopping precincts are owned by IPOH, a retail investment arm owned by the Singapore’s sovereign investment fund. The SkyFii wi-fi service is subsidised by shop owners and other sponsors who pay for advertisements within a so-called walled garden, with users required to watch around 15 seconds of video content in return for their free connection.

However, according to Wayne Arthur, Australian director with SkyFii, the platform has the potential to deliver far more sophisticated marketing solutions.

For instance, he said, it will soon be capable of recognising the type of device, MAC and IP addresses to identify a user’s location and even prior surfing history. 

This information could be used to better understand buyer behaviour and tailor ad content on the site as well as inform push content to consumers’ mobile devices. 

“Such a tailored delivery is where the industry is heading,” Arthur said.

The higher throughout capabilities of the imminent new 802.11ac standard are expected to support delivery of richer content as well.

Some 2000 users connect at one of the four Sydney CBD spots each day. In addition to the many store owners that have bought ads, the launch sponsor on the IPOH  retail network was Samsung, for which SkyFii produced a video ad to be viewed by users of the free service.

Arthur predicted the ad-sponsored model for free wi-fi will take off in Australia, creating a powerful new channel for brands to communicate with would-be customers. He said in the US, UK and more recently India, demand for such services has increased sharply.

“The value is in the fact the user is completely engaged in whatever content you wish to show them: there are all sorts of marketing opportunities.” 

Backhaul for the SkyFii connection is provided by Sydney fixed wireless specialists BigAir. Each of the four locations offers downlink speeds of 5Mbps, with the ability to go up to 2500Mbps with microwave if needed. 

The carrier also monitors, maintains and manages the service from its network operations centre (NOC), providing round-the-clock customer support. 

Yoshi Yamamoto, NOC engineer at BigAir, said the company’s systems undertake deep inspection of packets and prioritise web and VoIP traffic. 

“The network delivers a consistent and reliable performance even during peak times,” Yamamoto  said.

Country manager for Ruckus Carl Jefferys said that the QVB component of the rollout is over provisioned with 16 access points (along with one Ruckus  Zone Director server) despite one competitive bid recommending up to 44.

But one of IPOH’s chief stipulations was that it didn’t want its new state-of-the-art wireless network to obscure any of the features of the historic QVB.

“Mounting access points was quite challenging because of the requirement to not impinge on cultural aspects or do things less than aesthetically ideal,” Jeffreys said.

Ruckus wi-fi access points utilise a patented adaptive antenna technology called BeamFlex which allows signal patterns to be adjusted depending on the physical environment and factors such as radio frequency interference.

The company’s ChannelFly technology automatically changes channels in order to maximise throughput. This is why the site was able to be covered with less gear.

Nevertheless IPOH required that any visible hardware be painted over in “heritage colours”. At The Galeries, a pair of access points covers the food hall, while at Chifley Plaza one was enough for the food court plus the café areas on other floors. 

Just one access point was needed to blanket The Strand Arcade despite the challenging design of the heritage building.

And despite the old designs of the buildings - especially the QVB - the project was completed not in the assigned 12 weeks, but in just four.

Because of their proximity, the QVB and Galeries share the one fixed wireless link via a fibre optic cable, while The Strand Arcade and Chifley Plaza have their own connections.

Jean Morel, an executive with BigAir, said his company had an existing deep relationship with Ruckus through their work together on the tertiary residential students’ network, which has seen wireless networks rolled out at more than 170 university sites across Australia.

He noted demand for wi-fi is growing exponentially throughout the education and other key verticals in Australia, including  government and of course retail. 

“We are also seeing a requirement among cinema and stadium operators,” he said. “Growth in managed free wireless networks is huge.” 

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