We now live in a world that is almost fully dependent on the internet. Globally, there are more than 3.5 billion internet users actively using the internet — almost a half of the total world population. And while a growing proportion of smartphone users are shifting from Wi-Fi access to mobile data, Wi-Fi networks still account for around a half of usage. Wi-Fi is also the preferred means of connecting because it is faster, especially in emerging markets where cellular data is not yet as developed or pervasive as in developed economies.
As of today, there’s a vast availability of Wi-Fi networks and large quantities of underutilised wireless bandwidth in populated regions. Wi-Fi hotspots, which allow for internet connectivity, have been on the increase — you only need to open a laptop to see how numerous they are. By 2020, the number of wireless hotspots is expected to hit 432.5 million.
Roadblocks despite growth
This growth, however, comes with some challenges and stumbling blocks. While there exists a few networks of paid and premium Wi-Fi hotspot networks that individual users can access, there is under-utilisation in what could be a viable public hotspot network run by both business and individual operators. Here are some challenges:
1. The need to incentivise sharing
WiFi sharing is not a new concept. It has been around since before smartphones became popular. For instance, among many others, Cisco had always actively promoted carrier-based solutions such as Passpoint (802.11u / Hotspot 2.0) and WISPr since the late 2000s. Even open-source initiatives like DD-WRT and WifiDog offer captive networks based on individual users sharing their networks with the public.
However, the absence of incentives has deterred hosts from joining the list of thousands of hotspots that already exist in places like restaurants, malls, and airports. This has been a major stumbling block to creating a Wi-Fi sharing economy.
Interestingly even those living in residential areas, where people are familiar with each other the other, still keep their access locked. This can be due to contractual limitations (service providers may legally limit access within one household to protect their own business models). While sharing come with benefits, there is simply no reason for users to share their connections.
In both residential and public settings, enough incentivisation can encourage a sharing economy, similar to Airbnb or Uber. Why lock down your network resource when you can share excess capacity for some fair compensation?
2. Inadequate security
In order to limit access to their networks, most public hotspot providers use subscription fees as a means for limiting the access to their networks. Users can only connect to the wireless network using preset passwords given by the hosts. This is quite understandable, with most hosts are taking into account the security of the networks.
The major fear is the increased risk of external access to information transferred between parties and also having their SSID and MAC addresses being collected. This certainly raises issues concerning security and privacy. Recall how one’s whereabouts can be tracked through MAC address, and how Google has been sniffing SSIDs for years.
With most public hotspots being unencrypted, hackers can easily take advantage of sniffing through public Wi-Fi traffic, such as ones found in malls and cafes, in order to prey on unsuspecting users. Data worth millions of dollars gets stolen every year due to people connecting to unprotected Wi-Fi networks.
How decentralisation can bridge the gaps
Blockchain tech can facilitate better Wi-Fi sharing through incentivisation and better security. Various sectors and industries have increasingly adopted the use of blockchain technology for their different business operations. From facilitating financial transactions, creating Digital Assets and Identities to disrupting the online gaming sector, blockchain has proven its capabilities and unlocked a world of possibilities.
WiFiCoin is an example of an organisation that aims to address the need for better network sharing, through a peer-to-peer Wi-Fi marketplace where hosts earn credits for offering Wi-Fi access and users spend tokens for getting access to networks. It’s like Uber for public Wi-Fi networks, as it enables both individuals, commercial establishments, and even telcos, to share access to their wireless network in exchange for incentives.
The protocol, which runs on top of the Ethereum blockchain, lets anyone download and connect through a network of hosts who share their bandwidth. The crpytographic nature of blockchain ensures the network is secure from hackers. The system can potentially converge all existing networks into a singular secure Wi-Fi hotspot that can encompass the whole planet.
The organisation has already partnered with telecom providers in the United States, European Union, and global Wi-Fi aggregators who have agreed to allow the usage of their networks for running the ecosystem. This puts users in a highly advantageous position by providing them with an already available choice of thousands of Wi-Fi providers and sharers across the globe.
Other solutions have also presented their own way to implement Wi-Fi sharing across the globe. For example, Google’s own Fi network leverages Wi-Fi hotspots across the USA to augment cellular connectivity for its Android-based devices. Another example is Fon, which is essentially a commercial and global Wi-Fi network. Even Skype had its own short-lived service, which enabled premium subscribers to access compatible hotspots across the globe. These are mostly centralised solutions, though, which concentrates control and profit toward the platform owner. Decentralisation would bring in the benefits of better sharing and better control amongst the community.
To conclude …
Wi-Fi networks are nothing new. But just like other industries that were greatly disrupted by startups that fostered sharing ecosystems, we can still see some improvement in how we utilise and share Wi-Fi networks. Even if such connetivity options are increasingly being overtaken by technologies like celluar data, it’s still a viable and potentially profitable platform for the community.
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