While it's unclear how much that Wi-Fi, especially free Wi-Fi, can boost the bottom line, one thing is sure--it is getting easier to set up a free hot spot. At least one source of help is entirely altruistic and has a vision for creating a community of Wi-Fi users.
In Austin, a group of diehard techno-geeks have come together on their own time to form a voluntary company called Less Networks. They've designed software that any cafe--in Austin or elsewhere--can use for free to let customers sign up for no-cost Wi-Fi service. It offers a low level of security against potential spammers, and the sign-on Web page can be customized for that cafe, sporting its logo and other text.
Once users are signed on to a Less Networks network, they can chat via an instant message-like client (IRC) with other users logged onto a Less Network. They can also see who is logged onto which network, which could determine which cafe the customer wants to hang out at on a given afternoon.
The client will also automatically create a log for users of where they've used a Less Networks network and how long they've spent on each one.
So far, three venues in Austin are part of the Less Networks community, which hasn't officially launched. The venues use the free software and also let Less Networks volunteers set up the hot spot.
Why are Less Networks volunteers doing this? "I'd like to empower the free Wi-Fi movement," said Rich MacKinnon, founder of Less Networks. He says that there have been lots of good ideas for spreading Wi-Fi and plenty of enthusiastic geeks willing to help but the software and services to make it happen haven't been available.
MacKinnon's mantra might as well be "geeks of the world unite." The way he sees it, there are what he calls "local caretaker geeks" in just about every town. They drive the technology innovation, but often need the support to really make things happen.
"If you think about it, the geeks of the world are out there deploying the T-Mobiles," he said. "All we're trying to do is put better tools in the hands of the geeks to continue the good work they're already doing."
In other words, techno-savvy people work for companies like T-Mobile during the day, deploying the for-fee Wi-Fi services. Chances are some of those same people support the idea of free services outside of work. Less Networks hopes to empower them to build the free networks in their spare time.
Opal Divine's Freehouse in Austin is one of the first users of Less Networks offering. So far, having Wi-Fi has done just what the restaurant owner had hoped: it's driving customers in during the slowest times of the day, said Michael Parker, owner, general manager, and chief bottle washer at Opal's. (Starbucks recently noted the same phenomenon: in a press release yesterday, they said 90 percent of their T-Mobile Wi-Fi access was off peak, after 9 a.m.)
Without Less Networks he would have put up an open hot spot, which he was reluctant to do for fear of people abusing it. "At one point I thought of putting up a real private network for me and my friends, but that kind of defeats the purpose," he said.
He's glad to take advantage of some of the control features available with the Less Networks administrator tools. For example, if some customers are camping out behind their laptops during a very busy time, Parker can set the network so only five people can use it in hopes that some of the campers will take off.
Remarkably, Less Networks has competition for helping venues set up free hot spots, but its competitors have financial motives. Surf and Sip, a San Francisco-based hot spot provider, has just come out with an offering for cafes that want to build a free hot spot. For a $300 startup fee and $50 a month, Surf and Sip will build the network and support it on an ongoing basis.
Not only does Surf and Sip hope to make some money from the offering, but it also may hope that the cafes will decide to upgrade to a paid model. In that case, if the cafe sticks with Surf and Sip, Surf and Sip will share revenues.
Airpath Wireless is another company that offers a platform for venues to build free wireless access. It too stands to benefit if the venue migrates to a fee-based model.
The original free gateway software, NoCatAuth, continues to be developed as well, although it has more of a self-starter model in mind for those more technically inclined.
Less Networks is clearly on to something, given the interest in supporting free networks, and their no-cost, low-stress approach may provoke more independent locations to go Wi-Fi in a grass roots way, keeping local control while enforcing usage policies.