Wi-Fi startup PoweredLocal is launching a national mesh Wi-Fi network that will merge its 2,100 Wi-Fi access points in venues and retailers across Australia. The aim is to address what the company says are some key pain points with existing public Wi-Fi offerings such as slow data speeds and excessive login screens. Do we need more free Wi-Fi? And it seems that there is a hidden cost with this free service.
I've basically given up on using public WiFi as it's almost always slower than cellular data and I don't trust the infrastructure to protect my privacy. When i'm forced to use it, I use a VPN. It's not that hard to create a rogue access point that can be used to steal data and I have no idea what data the service provider is caching or retaining.
Of course, there is a case to be made for free WiFi. Not everyone has the budget for lots of cellular data on their phone plan and it's handy for tourists. PoweredLocal plan will be great in those situations as once you've connected to the network once, you should be able to connect at any other location they are online without having to fiddle with settings. That will be similar to Apple's in-store free wireless which works at any Apple Store in the world once you've used it once.
PoweredLocal said their Wi-Fi network operates on a check-in for login basis. Once you check in to a location using Facebook, you'll be automatically connected to the Wi-Fi. Which is very convenient but rings a few alarm bells in my mind. Now, people not only know what network I'm connected to but where I am. And that connection results in sharing some of your personal data with the store or place you're connecting from.
Participating venues can limit the network speeds and cap downloads per session. The average speed for the network is 20Mbps and users are entitled to 500MB per session.
If you look at what PoweredLocal is really about, you'll learn they are not a network infrastructure company. They are a "social Wi-Fi company that helps bricks and mortar businesses generate social media interest, Facebook tracking and customer data". And their website has the tagline "Give Your Customers Free Wireless Internet. They'll Share The Love For It".
In other words, the cost of this convenience is your data.
Remember, if the product is free, chances are, you're really the product.