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Captive Portals for Open Wireless Networks

We’ve all heard about “Guest WiFi” or seen a sign advertising “Free WiFi”. It’s that part of the business’ internet offering that is open for public use — sometimes with a password and sometimes without. It’s sometimes called a ‘hotspot’ or just “WiFi” and it’s been around since we started getting devices that can make use of it (mobile phones, computers, tablets, etc.).

Offering WiFi is a wonderful service to include with your services for your customers. Anything we can do to keep folks coming in and coming back we should offer for sure. But are you getting the most from your free wifi? Does it include your branding or promotions? Are you building an email list for those who have consented to email marketing? And should you restrict both the amount of wifi time a person uses and what websites they can view once they sign on?

If any of the above interests you, then what you need is a Captive Portal. A Captive Portal is a door or checkpoint the user has to pass thru before they are granted permission to use the guest WiFi. Think of the Captive Portal as your security guard or the person at the club deciding who gets in and who doesn’t.  And like a security guard might dictate the code of conduct for folks allowed in, a Captive Portal equally sets the rules of internet use and ensures that users abide by a code of conduct while using the service.

From Internet Cafes to Wireless Captive Portals

Captive Portals actually had their start in Internet Cafes which popped up around the world, providing travelers and locals without a home computer access to the World Wide Web.  For a few dollars you were granted access to the computer, you sat down next to another person also using a computer, and you went to work. Your use was moderated by a manager who monitored how long you were online, what websites you viewed and made sure you were abiding by the terms of use of the Cafe.

With the development of wireless communications and wifi-enabled hand-held mobile phones and internet ready devices, Internet Cafes lost their appeal for many users.  Businesses responded by adapting to “Free WiFi” models and developed captive portal solutions to support the range of ‘wifi-enabled’ devices such as mobile phones, tablets and laptop computers.  Today captive portals are mostly enjoyed in practical situations such as with laptop and tablet users who do not have cellular connection with their wifi, and mobile phone users without good cellular coverage or those with limited data plans.  Airports are a great example of where a captive portal is often a necessity — cellular towers can’t penetrate the interior walls of the airport and the signal reception can be spotty or non-existent.  Offering guest WiFi in these situations is a great service and the captive portal ensures that service is available for everyone according to the terms of use. Let’s look at how a captive portal works:

How the Captive Portal Works.

User views ADs and News before the Sign In Screen.

User joins WiFi Network agrees to Terms & Mailing List.

Access is granted, user browses allowed destinations.

Real-time Control & Analytics from Cloud Admin Center

Control browsing, time online, and connection speed to ensure terms compliance and satisfaction for all users.

Captive Portals have been developed to ensure that the guest gets the best experience possible while offering the business the opportunity for greater network control and monitoring, advertising, promotions and marketing outreach. They are used by businesses large and small and we have grown to expect them in places ranging from airports to Starbucks coffee shops.

There are a lot of benefits when you install a captive portal on your open guest wifi network. Everything from user moderation to brand related marketing is possible. Below are some of the most recognized benefits of Captive Portals.  Many of these features are optional and should be weighed against user experience and satisfaction when put into use.

Benefits of Captive Portals on Open Guest WiFi Networks

  1. Consent to Email, SMS (Follow-On Marketing) — the very first thing the user is asked to do is provide both or either their email, telephone number or social media address, and give voluntary consent to being placed in a database for follow-on marketing.
  2. Forced Agreement to Terms of Use — A captive portal replaces simple password open wifi solutions — it includes an agreement between the user and provider that they will abide by the terms set out by the provider when using the service.
  3. Traffic Segregation — captive portals force visitors onto a dedicated channel that can be separated from the main router channel ensuring higher data speeds for critical network infrastructure and employee use.
  4. Bandwidth Throttling/Reduce Network Congestion — Throttling prevents large file transfers from taking priority on the network and in the case of video steps the quality down to a level that ensures everyone else on the shared network is satisfied when using the service.
  5. Session Time Limits — setting session time limits ensures users do not exceed the daily amount of time you would like to offer each user, also prevent users from staying on the network too long.  It can require a delay before reuse, viewing a 15 or 30-second advertisement, purchasing an item from the business, or waiting until another day for additional use.  This has benefits ranging from freeing up use to ensuring people aren’t using the service for the purpose of watching lengthy programming. (Note: some carriers are now offering unlimited 5G coverage for transit, and so many of these limitations may soon be a thing of the past.)
  6. Brand Awareness, Advertising and Corporate/Community Sponsorship — recognize yourself, promote local businesses and thank corporate and community-based sponsors who contribute financially for the availability of free wifi to guests or passengers.
  7. Surveys & Service Impact Studies — Offering brief surveys that include data such as household income, zip code, ethnicity, age/gender and purpose for riding the bus gives valuable insight which can be converted both to programmatic upgrades for riders and reports submitted to local, state and federal agencies for funding.
  8. Walled Garden — a ‘walled garden’ in a wireless network permits or denies access to specific websites or URLs and provided the device has child protection features installed can even ensure age-appropriate marketing is given at time of use.
The success of your business today includes a robust marketing solution including an up to date email list. And the success of your guest wifi relies on the ability for all users to enjoy use at the same time without interruption or delay. Installing a captive portal makes good business sense not only for your brand but for the overall experience of your customers.
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