Why Public Wi-Fi Isn’t Doing the Job

on August 6, 2011
Reading Time: 2 minutes

The easiest and best way to relive many of the pains of mobile wireless is to offload traffic from 3G or 4G networks to Wi-Fi. But this doesn’t work nearly as well or as smoothly as it should.

Wi-Fi logoFor the past couple of days, I’ve been at Mathfest, the summer meeting of the Mathematical Assn. of America in Lexington, Ky. There’s free Wi-Fi,  of variable quality, in the Louisville Convention Center. Like many public networks, free or paid, it is set up so that network access requires login on a web page. And, as with the case of many such networks, you have to log in every time your network connection is broken and reestablished, effectively every time you move from one room to another.

It’s not a good idea to run completely open Wi-Fi. Even if you don’t care who gets on the network, communications over open networks, other than those with secure sites supplying their own encryption, are wide open to anyone who cares to listen in. Since most users are unaware of this, they are very dangerous.

The best way to provide free public service is using Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA). This requires giving all potential users a passphrase (you could oost it on the wall.) The advantage is that once the passphrase is entered, most devices will store the configuration and automatically reconnect as needed.

Unfortunately, this approach does not work for paid services, whether pay-by-session or subscription, because there is no way to authenticate individual users. I think the best solutions for these is to provide apps for all devices that will automatically handle the authentication, requiring the user to enter a username and password at most once (you start talking like that after a couple days as a math meeting.)

Boingo does something like this for its subscribers. You give your Boingo credentials to the app–typically just once–and Boingo takes care of the mechanics of logging you on to a wide variety of networks. Unfortunately, Boingo’s coverage is far from universal; it did not, for example, work in either my hotel or the convention center.

Wireless carriers should really be leading the way in making this happen. They are increasing anxious to move traffic onto Wi-Fi and are building hotspots to facilitate this. But sometimes even getting onto your own carrier’s Wi-Fi is nowhere near as seamless as it should be, and using a rival carrier’s network is often impossible.