Free Wifi! (or is it?)

How many times have you seen a sign like the one on the right, standing outside a cafe proudly advertising ‘Free WiFi’? but how many times has it been true?

I’m not talking here about places that while not charging for access, still require you to register first with an email address (such as The Cloud at Pizza Express), presumably to have some sort of identification in case you use the connection for nefarious purposes.

More often that not, this is the sort of thing you will see when you fire up your WiFi settings:

So where’s the free WiFi?

Both the BTFusion and BTBusinessHub SSIDs are secured. The BTOpenzone SSID isn’t but that isn’t free. You either have to buy vouchers or have a contract that allows access.

There is no other SSID present, so the ‘Free WiFi’ claim outside is false, although not necessarily a lie on the part of the cafe owner – I’ll come to that later but I want to talk first about BT Openzone, as I think this lies behind the cafe owner’s belief that they are providing free WiFi.

BTOpenzone isn’t always BTOpenzone

As you can see, my iPhone has connected to the BTOpenzone SSID; As an O2 subscriber at the time of these screengrabs, I had access to the BT Openzone network, but as we will see, not all BT Openzone access points are created equal.

OK, we seem to be connected, let’s browse the web. Oh wait, no what’s this?:

“Sorry your mobile provider doesn’t provide access from this specific hotspot”.

So why did you show the Mobile provider icons?

And here we have the BTOpenzone cock up. When BT Openzone first started, WiFi access points were installed in motorway service stations, hotels, railway stations, airports etc. It is this original network that BT grants access to O2, Vodafone, Orange, T-Mobile subscribers, something BT refers to as Premium Hotspots.

Unfortunately, when BT decided to create a network of access points using the installed base of BT Home and Business broadband hubs, some not-so-bright spark thought it was a good idea to use the same SSID. The problem is that these pseudo-BTOpenzone connections are only available to BT Broadband customers, not O2, Vodafone etc. customers. Now, fair enough, that is a commercial decision on BT’s part to separate the networks but since my phone has previously connected and used a real BT Openzone access point, it automatically connects to this one (see screengrab), after all why shouldn’t it, It’s the same ID?

After a few years, BT have finally realised this and have started to rename these SSIDs to BTOpenzone-H for Home, but this is far from complete and as we will see, even new connections are still being installed with the old SSID.

So what’s all this got to do with free WiFi?

Anyone looking at offering free WiFi access needs to consider a number of issues:

  • Any connection must only provide access to the internet, it must not in any way allow access to any devices on your own personal network, otherwise you risk a security breach.
  • If bandwidth or data usage is an issue on the connection you intend to share, how will you limit the amount of data used?
  • Any malicious or criminal use of your connection by others could be traced back to you as the account holder. Despite the fact that you would not have been responsible for such actions, cases already brought show that those pursuing claims don’t care that an IP address does not correspond to an individual. Can you afford to have to defend such a claim?

Recently, a cafe owner I know announced that they were intending to provide free WiFi in the cafe. I pointed out the concerns above and asked how they were intending to address these. They said that BT were providing the connection and that BT had said the BT equipment would allow the cafe could provide free WiFi to their customers. Given my experience at numerous cafes as detailed above, I was curious as to what BT were promising.

After BT installed the Business Broadband, there was nothing obvious for customers to connect to, only a Business Broadband SSID (private encrypted network for the owner’s personal use) and the usual low-grade BTOpenzone only available to BT Broadband customers. Note that this is a new install but still displays the same SSID as a premium hotspot.

The cafe owner contacted BT and asked how customers were supposed to get free WiFi. The cafe tell me that they were told to give out their private key to the Business Broadband SSID! This is an incredibly stupid thing to do, exposing the cafe owner’s network to the public, and making them liable for any malicious/criminal activity carried out using the connection. It should be noted that a BTOpenzone connection does address all three of the above issues as it requires registration, and is routed out via a VPN connection, but it is by no means free to the cafe customer using the WiFi. BT have since told the cafe that the only public connection is the BTOpenzone. It’s that or nothing.

Seeing this from the cafe owner’s perspective, I begs the question as to what all those other establishments that promise free Wifi, yet only show BTOpenzone, have been told. Are they being told that this is Free WiFi for customers? Do the sales bods selling BT Broadband to businesses believe that BTOpenzone is the free WiFi because it’s free to BT Broadband customers.

Are you a cafe/B&B/hotel owner? Do you offer free WiFi? I’d be interested in your experiences.

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