Researchers Seek Answers to Wi-Fi Zombies

By Ed Sutherland

August 05, 2005

The technical issues of most wireless connections may be behind us, but the social issues -- like users at free hotspots tuning out the real world -- may just be beginning.

Are Wi-Fi freeloaders reality or myth? Can the image of Wi-Fi zombies connected to the Internet, yet disconnected from their neighbor, be reversed? Faced with headlines questioning the wisdom of free Wi-Fi hotspots, two researchers are on a quest to reshape the image of Wi-Fi users.

“A survey and complete study of hotspot users is needed now more than ever,” says Will Hawkins, a University of Virginia researcher. Hawkins is conducting an online survey hoping to find some answers to the most pressing questions of who is using hotspots, and why they use them.

Hawkins’ brief survey asks Wi-Fi users how much time they spend at hotspots, what attracts them to hotspots (interacting with others, working outside the office, the convenience or the fact it is free, etc.), and the most common uses for  hotspot Internet access.

“Businesses offering free hotspot access have recently started to fear the freeloader,” Hawkins says. After one Seattle café dropped Wi-Fi access during weekends because those drawn to the free hotspot outnumbered paying customers, a bit of soul-searching began over free Wi-Fi as a practical business model.

“Eventually, business owners may stop offering hotspots if they become overly concerned with this,” says Hawkins. “A study like this will help decide if the freeloader is a myth or reality."

If the image of a parasitic Wi-Fi user is disproved by the survey, it may confirm to hotspot operators that offering free Wi-Fi access is worthwhile. “This study will help spur other researchers into developing ways to offer free access while discouraging freeloaders,” says Hawkins.

The results could also be used to help Wi-Fi device makers tailor their gear to Wi-Fi hotspot usage.  Hawkins muses that “If people are only browsing e-mail and the Web, then there may be a market for a lower bandwidth access point with longer range.”

The survey began in June and continues through mid-August. 

Zombie Invasion?

Nearly 40 percent of consumers report e-mail and Web browsing as their favorite ways to use public Wi-Fi hotspots. However, the view from companies offering free Wi-Fi differs, according to Jupiter Research Wi-Fi analyst Ina Sebastian.

“While the bulk of sessions still consist of customers who check e-mail or use work-related applications, the bulk of data are now music and movie downloads – data transfers have increased significantly since last year,” she says.

Sean Savage, known for promoting online concepts such as “smart mobs,” has turned his attention to revamping the image of Wi-Fi hotspot users. Savage has coined the term “zombie” to describe the faraway behavior and disconnected attitude of many hotspot users.

The zombie effect occurs when “one person tunes out from what’s going on around her to tune into her laptop,” says Savage. The impact is even more pronounced in cafés, where a community atmosphere is, apparently, expected.

To re-inject Wi-Fi hotspots with that community atmosphere, Savage recently unveiled PlaceSite. The project creates an online atmosphere tailored to individual cafés. Users log in and  share some information about themselves. They are then able to learn about other wireless users at the same location.

The service is set to roll out in October in San Francisco, and Savage plans to keep PlaceSite free for users.

Last year, Savage, along with Seattle Intel researcher Joe McCarthy, studied that city’s cafés and how people used them. The applications they used were initially designed at the desktop computers in homes and offices, where an  inward focus was expected. As computing moves beyond the desktop and becomes mobile with Wi-Fi, Savage says, that inward concentration may be out of place.

“We have lots of situations where ‘desktop’ behaviors and tasks become possible in places traditionally associated with other activities,” says Savage.

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