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March 16, 2006

Free Business Idea – Sponsored WiFi

Sometimes you see tourists in downtown Stowe, Vermont wandering around with their laptops held awkwardly in search of elusive leaks of WiFi bandwidth.  I’ve done it myself on vacation – it’s vacations when you end up in quaint places without broadband.  Usually I can find at least a mediocre unprotected connection without doing any of the kind of hacking I don’t know how to do anymore.  BTW, unprotected works both ways; you don’t want to do your electronic banking on an open connection.  It could even be a trap.

Anyway, this gave me an idea.

“I have an idea,” I said to our friend who is a very marketing-savvy realtor with an office downtown. “You should put up a powerful WiFi antenna on the roof of the building your office is in.  Offer free WiFi downtown from it.  But it starts with a signon page that shows all the pretty houses in the window of your office and lets people click through to you and the listings. Let’s them make appointments and get on your mailing list and all.”

She is not only marketing-savvy but practical.  “Whom do I get to do this,” she asked?  I was stumped I don’t know.

That’s the business opportunity.  Set other businesses up to offer free WiFi to customers and prospects.  Design the splash page.  Integrate it with whatever website the business already has.  Do all the technical stuff in siting the antennae for good coverage. Arrange for adequate broadband access (won’t usually have to be very much).

Because you do need feet on the street (or on the roof) to do the installs right, maybe should be a franchise business.  Perhaps the real opportunity is in providing the templates for all of this.  It’s possibly a line extension for a web design firm; possibly for a local ISP (endangered species).  It does take marketing savvy because the only justification for the business expense is its marketing potential.

Even existing providers of free WiFi could use the marketing help.  I was in the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, MI the other day (GRR – the GR may be a pun).  It’s a clean well-lighted place which not only has excellent complimentary WiFi but also free business centers with power sponsored by Steelcase.  But the splash screen was clearly just there to get me to agree not to sue them.  It didn’t even name the airport, just some provider.  It should have been a local clickable map or directory of services.  I wouldn’t have used it on that trip but certainly might have on another.

Same thing with the free WiFi in some airline lounges.  I certainly wouldn’t mind a splash screen or two that’s an ad.  The ones that charge for WiFi piss me off; generally I don’t use it.  They could both make me happy and probably get a return by providing free sponsored WiFi.

Car dealerships are prospects.  Customers sit around in the waiting room.  Good if they could use their laptops.  And a good place to showcase new cars in a splash screen.  Offer videos, test drives.

I think sponsored WiFi will end up being the rule rather than the exception. It’s a more efficient way to provide the service in public places than charging for it explicitly.  My prediction is that, within a couple of years, there will be banners – the physical kind – and posters in shop windows soliciting us to select one sponsored WiFi service over another.

So there’s a business opportunity in being the enabler of sponsored WiFi.

Is someone already doing this?  I don’t know.  I’m giving you this business idea free so you have to do your own diligence.  If you are in this business or know of examples, feel free to post comments on this post with links.

I have a customer for you in Vermont.

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