How does free public WiFi work?

Free public WiFi has become big business, as a way of attracting and retaining customers for longer

Monday, 19 July, 2021

Next time you visit a shopping centre, try a little experiment.

Go into your phone’s WiFi settings, scan for networks, and see how many open public networks appear as you walk along.

You’ll notice shops, cafés, restaurants and sports venues advertising their own WiFi networks, while shopping centres are likely to offer free public WiFi of their own.

The last year also has seen public networks being launched by local councils from St Ives to Stirling.

With some patience (and lots of registration forms), you could travel around a city centre all day and not use a single byte of your mobile phone’s monthly data contract.

However, nothing in the world is truly free. WiFi networks cost a fair amount of money to set up and maintain, while the data being distributed has to be paid for as well.

So why would companies and councils offer free public WiFi? And how can you take advantage of it next time you’re out and about?

The reasons for offering free public WiFi

There are several advantages from a commercial and corporate perspective:

  1. Customer registration. Rather than people drifting in and out of corporate premises, WiFi registration identifies them – making it easier to monitor behaviour (and identify repeat visitors)
  2. Extra time. If people in a café or restaurant have free WiFi, they’re less likely to leave. More time spent on-site means more chance of repeat custom
  3. Greater loyalty. People appreciate free connectivity, and they’re subconsciously going to be more favourably disposed towards a brand offering it than a brand that doesn’t
  4. Cross-selling opportunities. A landing page displayed once a customer has registered can be customised to include discounts, promotional content, adverts or useful information
  5. Tourism. Public bodies generally want to create a positive impression among visitors, and making their lives easier with free WiFi is one way to make people feel welcome.

How can I take advantage of these services?

It all starts with a well-charged battery.

WiFi data transfers consume more power than mobile services, and scanning for WiFi networks also depletes a phone’s remaining charge.

You’ll need to have WiFi switched on, before identifying which networks are currently within range via your phone’s Settings menu.

While some networks permit automatic connection, most require a password – typically displayed around a cash desk or counter.

(A network with no password could be accessed by anyone, meaning it’s less secure than one guarded with a password).

Ensure you’re connecting to the right network – a retailer might have different networks for customers and staff, and your phone may detect both depending on where the routers are located.

Finally, bear in mind data shared over a public WiFi connection isn’t secure. It could easily be spied upon by someone with the right equipment.

You might want to use a VPN if you’re going to be sending or receiving confidential data like banking logins or sensitive work-related emails.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!