The Pros and Cons of Offering Free Wi-Fi to Customers

Want customers to linger longer? Offer free Wi-Fi — but take steps to protect your network.
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Lower security risk by splitting your Wi-Fi into both a private and public network — one for customers and one for your business. (Photo: Stay_Positive/Shutterstock)

Whether they’re sitting in a coffee shop or waiting for their car to be repaired, today’s consumers expect internet connectivity will be available pretty much everywhere.

For small businesses, offering free Wi-Fi has advantages. The main one: extending time on premises.

Related: 5 Lessons SMB Owners Can Learn from Indie Bookstores

Lee Heisman, owner of IT support and consulting firm Savant CTS, said for businesses where the customer must sit and wait, free Wi-Fi as almost a necessity. “Driving business in these types of environments, you want your customers to be comfortable there. And the more time that they spend at your location, hopefully the more money they will generate.”

Without internet access, “most people may not spend extra time, or at least longer than necessary, in your facility.”

Offering free Wi-Fi has another potential benefit: free marketing.

“Consider any hotel you go to,” said Heisman. “If you’re able to get through the rigamarole of using your hotel room name or whatever credentials they provide you, the homepage that pops up is the hotel’s.”

Local businesses can do the same, he said. By designating your own website or landing page as the homepage for your network, you can direct the user’s attention to your brand and any current promotions or discounts.

Many companies also use public Wi-Fi as a lead generation opportunity or to grow their customer email list by asking for an email address in order to use the network. It’s an easy way to collect customer information so you can send promotions or specials, he said.

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Offering free Wi-Fi allows customers to get comfortable and stay in your shop or restaurant longer. (Photo: mavo/Shutterstock)

The risks

The biggest risk to offering free Wi-Fi is network security. “If you have open free Wi-Fi,” explained Heisman, “not only do the people in the facility have access to it, but people within a couple hundred yards of your Wi-Fi signal have it. It’s just complete access to your network.”

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As the owner offering Wi-Fi, you want to diffuse all responsibility away from you.” -Lee Heisman (Photo: Lee Heisman)

“No matter what anybody tells you, everybody is hackable,” he noted.

Related: Cybersecurity for Small Businesses: You’re Never Too Small to be Safe

According to Heisman, each business should decide if the reward outweighs the risk. “For types of places that don’t require people to stay in their facility, I would absolutely have no wireless because it’s just an open access point to your network. Your job as a business owner is to mitigate your opportunities of being hacked. So if you don’t need it, don’t offer it.” On the other hand, if your business is designed for people to spend time there, “I think it’s a requisite in today’s world.”

You can significantly lower the risk to your data by splitting your network into a public one and a private one. A professional can set up a public network for you. It shouldn’t be overly expensive and is worth the investment and peace of mind, said Heisman.

A good IT partner can also train you so you can manage the system yourself, he said. “You want access into the system. You want to know how you can change the password. You want to have as much control as you can on this small aspect of your business, but you still need the high-end professional to set it up properly.”

Finally, Heisman advised having the user agree to a disclaimer. “As the owner offering Wi-Fi, you want to diffuse all responsibility away from you,” he explained. When the user agrees to your terms and conditions, it ensures “you are not held culpable if any inappropriate activity is happening off of that IP address — which is yours.”

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