08/20/2013 12:04 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2013

The Hidden Cost of "Free" Wireless Connectivity

In the social and knowledge share era, our customer's connectivity expectations are growing rapidly, challenging both IT and business models to adapt or become irrelevant. For some businesses a growing objective is to provide greater customer service through an improved connected experience. A recent hospitality survey rated wireless connectivity as the top requirement for a better customer experience - see infographic.

For the hospitality business, hotel guests are looking for the basics. "WiFi in hotels should be like pillows: just there," said Joanna Young, CIO of UNH. In healthcare, the challenge is to provide connectivity for hospital patients and visitors. Many hospitals are adding guest Wi-Fi coverage to their WLANs, boosting Internet connectivity, and working with local cellular carriers to boost indoor cell coverage. The incentive for the organization is to increase customer satisfaction related to their stay and leverage the connected access as an opportunity to introduce additional patient engagement opportunities. When the cellular coverage is lacking, it is the hospital that bears the brunt of the patient's frustration, not the cellular carrier. Hospital CIOs are concerned about the lack of effort to increase and/or improve connectivity, and the negative impact on IT that is associated with poor customer experience.

For stadiums and other entertainment venues, a business driver for providing mobile connectivity is to increase ticket sales. In a Sports & Entertainment Alliance in Technology conference (SEAT) article Paul Greenberg writes, "Wi-Fi at stadiums has to be as ubiquitous as bathrooms." To convince connected customers to leave their high definition living rooms and attend in-person venues, the on-premise experience must be pushed to new levels that encourage active vs. passive participation. The Southeastern Conference (SEC) is exploring ways to maintain high attendance; and a solid communications infrastructure is the first step.

Sports franchises, arenas, and stadiums are accomplishing this with mobile apps. The New England Patriots created a fan app called Patriots Gameday Live, providing fans with a growing list of services including everything from exclusive video feeds, food ordering, bathroom wait times, and social media engagement. Mobile applications are vastly improving the in-stadium user experience with capabilities like instant replay, ability to order food from your seat, social networking and much more.

Providing customers with an engaging connected experience comes with significant challenges and costs. As we have all experienced at one time or another, it can be a very frustrating experience when thousands of mobile users all try to go online in close proximity at the same time. No sports franchise that has invested in the next generation mobile fan app wants to be blamed for a poor experience caused by inadequate connectivity to the visitor's smartphone.

This brings us back to the core challenge of providing exceptional access for the connected customer. Wireless infrastructure for large facilities and support for dense usage environments comes with significant costs. CIO's have the task of delivering a robust infrastructure as efficiently and effectively as possible. One option is to negotiate with cell carriers to fund the deployment of cellular and Wi-Fi infrastructure in their facilities. At first glance this might seem to be a win-win for an organization - having the needed infrastructure to provide improved customer connectivity with little to no direct cost to the facility.

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. - English Proverb

Funding via a negotiated exclusivity contract as a way to minimize capital costs should leave you asking if indeed it's too good to be true. Let's say one carrier is willing to fund the installation of a distributed antenna system (DAS) in a hospital for clinical and visitor cellular access. At first pass this sounds like a decent portion as the customer community will now have improved mobile connectivity. However, what will the opinion be for the unfortunate customers who lack coverage from that particular carrier? We have witnessed this scenario first hand at a customer hospital where it was the CIO, IT department, and ultimately the hospital, rather than the cellular carrier that received the black eye from their patients for poor indoor coverage. Various entertainment venues have made similar deals for both cellular antennas systems and Wi-Fi coverage. Post installation they came to regret the impact to their brand from the resulting issues. Some of the most common issues include:

  • No cellular coverage for a significant number of fans
  • Lack of Wi-Fi coverage for all fans
  • Insufficient Wi-Fi capacity
  • Fans forced to use their cellular data plans, while assuming they are using Wi-Fi

As challenging as it can be to deliver connectivity to customers, it's easy to fall into the trap of assuming access alone is the goal. Rather, it's just the tip of the iceberg for providing a meaningful customer experience for all of the customers. Providing enhanced services to the connected customer goes beyond just delivering stable connectivity. When the investments and commitments are made to providing a connectivity solution for customers, it is critical to view the larger picture of providing a quality experience to the customer, patient, or fan.

This post was co-authored by Bob Zemke Healthcare Solutions Manager, Enterasys.