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Free Wi-Fi will never last…

A colleague and I were discussing a new Search Engine Marketing client and their plan to market to the growing world of RV parks and users. KOA Campgrounds is now offering free Wi-Fi at most of its locations and the client was excited to let us know this fact.

The service is also increasingly provided for free. In the 2007 KOA Directory, 324 of the 379 KOAs offering Wi-Fi list it as free. In 2006, only 281 KOAs offered Wi-Fi, and only 167 of those were free.

Being who we are we immediately began exploring the implications of free and paid Wi-Fi access and found ourselves on opposite side of the fence. 

Me: The really cool thing is that there is money to be made selling Wi-Fi at those parks.

My Colleague: I think charging people for Wi-Fi is BS.

Me: WTF?  I think that this shift to offer “free” Wi-Fi at venues is going to be short lived and that things will very soon return to the vending machine model of providing Hotspots or Wi-Fi.

My Colleague: I hate it when coffee shops try to charge me to use their Wi-Fi…or hotels. 

My Colleagues desire to have free Wi-Fi (let’s just say free internet access) stems from his perception that it doesn’t cost anything to share an internet connection. The Internet access is already there, paid for at a certain “promised” transfer rate. Why not give away what isn’t being used by the person who owns the access point?  The problem is that there is a finite amount of bandwidth that any connection can provide and that increasing the pipe size to account for the increase in traffic costs money. It’s really just like water. A high rise apartment community of 500 units will consume and pay for far more water than a single family home. Both have water pipes, one is just far larger than the other.  What would happen to the homeowner who allowed his neighbors to connect to his water line free of charge? Eventually someone would get a very large water bill. 

As more and more internet traffic becomes streaming videos, VoIP conversations, on demand movie downloads, and other bandwidth hogs, the WI-FI access points (free or not) are going to become over utilized. Every new device that hits the market seems to have some form of Wi-Fi access card installed. How long before it becomes hard just to get enough bandwidth to download a webpage at a free Wi-Fi spot?  Will the free users complain that they can’t use the free service as there is not enough free bandwidth available? Will the hotspot owner then buy more bandwidth to give away for free?  Or will they instead act like our earlier referenced homeowner who just got his $3000 water bill and charge his neighbors or turn off the spigot?  I’m guessing the later. 

Let’s face it.  Free internet access will become a thing of the past…just like free water.