Security, maintenance and ownership of the network are more important considerations for service industry players looking to provide free Wi-Fi service to customers, rather than the cost of implementation, industry watchers note.
Benhur Mesfin, Motorola Solutions' Asia-Pacific general manager for wireless network solutions, said security is a key concern where free public Wi-Fi networks are concerned as these tend to be unprotected. This is why many business owners choose to deploy their own private wireless networks for both staff and customers' use instead, he noted.
While there are costs involved in setting up a private network, retailers would prefer to have a robust network that they can control and cater to their unique needs and requirements, he said in an e-mail interview.
Possible security, legal ramifications
Samson Yeow, a lecturer at Singapore Polytechnic's (SP) School of Digital Media & Infocomm Technology, agreed, saying that it is reasonably easy to set up a Wi-Fi network within one's premises and the costs are "negligible". Instead, coverage, performance, and ownership are considerations shop owners would have to contend with, he noted.
For instance, a cybercrook might take over the shop's network via a "rogue" base station and steal personal data off customers' mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, which might cause security and privacy compromises, he elaborated.
Timothy Snow, consulting systems engineer for security at Cisco, pointed out that in terms of security and possible legal ramifications, "it's not so simple to limit the sites people can go or what they do on the Web".
If a person anonymously carried out illegal online activities using the free Wi-Fi access provided by a shop, his or her identity would remain unknown. It would be the store providing the access that will be identified by the authorities, since the digital subscriber line (DSL) the retailer signed up for would be the only information that would show up, Snow said.
However, in a previous ZDNet Asia report, Mark Lim, head of intellectual property of media and entertainment at local law firm Tan Peng Chin, said Wi-Fi providers in Singapore would not be liable should someone misuse the public network so long as they are not aware of or complicit in the illegal activity.
Wi-Fi service beneficial, not necessary
Snow did state that security and legal concerns notwithstanding, people today have come to expect mobility and Internet connectivity everywhere, and having Wi-Fi would be necessary whether it is for customers or for staff to get access on premise.
As such, Mesfin urged companies in the service industry to weigh up the costs in terms of the expected business goals that would be met with the deployment, as well as customers' expectations for such a service.
Offering Wi-Fi is a way to enhance customers' experience and could lead to increased customer stickiness and become a key differentiator for the business as an "outlet of choice", he added.
Yeow also noted: "It would be more beneficial for those businesses that want to encourage their customers to spend more time in the premises, such as restaurants, cafés and bookstores.
"The longer customers spend their time there, the higher chance it will generate more revenue for the business, thus making [Wi-Fi provision and maintenance] more cost-effective in the long run."
One retailer which agreed that setting up a private Wi-Fi network for both customers and internal use has been beneficial is Jo Ann Ng, managing director of Vanilla Bar & Cafe and Vanilla Gastro Winebar.
She said in her e-mail that having its own wireless network makes the outlets more "exclusive" to customers since the company can name the network. "When customers search for wireless networks on their devices, they are reminded of our store and we feel that this enhances brand loyalty."
Ng added that while building its own in-store Wi-Fi network is "definitely costlier", the value it adds to the business overrides the cost, and any problems with the service provider can be resolved directly, too.
That said, such Wi-Fi services should be considered as more of an added perk rather than a necessary offering, she stated.
Mobile operators have also recognized that consumers are increasingly dependent on Internet access on the go and look to capitalize on this by offering more competitive data packages. So, even if stores do not offer free Wi-Fi to customers, they might not lose out much as people can still surf the Web using cellular networks, she said.