Wi-Fi has become ubiquitous today for connecting mobiles, tablets and laptops to the internet. Since its inception in 1999, the Wi-Fi Alliance (http://www.wi-fi.org/) has been primarily promoting both technology and business advancements in Wi-Fi for internet access. The speed of Wi-Fi access points has increased 100 times from its 11 Mbps speed in 1999 to over a Gbps now.
The number of public Wi-Fi hotspots has almost doubled from 3.3. million in 2013 to more than 6 million now; the number of private hotspots has seen tremendous growth to more than 700 million today. However, apart from providing raw internet connectivity, Wi-Fi can also be used as a powerful business communication channel. Wi-Fi is hyper local as the technology is intended to cover about 100-300 feet from the access point. Proximity has become a critical element of today’s mobile connected experiences, and the market for proximity-based applications is expected to grow significantly in 2016 and beyond.
Wi-Fi Direct that allows direct connectivity between Wi-Fi devices and Wi-Fi Aware that enables devices to connect based on context, proximity and interest without the need for global positioning system (GPS) or mobile connectivity are being promoted by the Wi-Fi Alliance to better utilise the power of Wi-Fi. On the other hand, enterprises of today are moving from single channel (in-store or online) to omni-channel (online-offline) sales and marketing, especially in retail businesses. By using the power of Wi-Fi, retail stores can provide store branding, product promotion, loyalty programmes, cross and up selling of merchandise and much more to the customers who walk in to their stores, clutching their smartphones.
The communication also can be personalised with minimal effort. Continuous customer feedback collection, which is one of the major pain points for retail businesses, can be elicited using simple forms or chats over Wi-Fi. A wealth of information thus collected can be used to improve merchandise stocking, innovate on pricing policies, and improve customer experience. Though retail industry tried a variation of this using Bluetooth technology, due to its intrusive nature and complexity of set up, it is not really catching on.
It is time for the brick-and-mortar companies to latch on to this simple but powerful technology to outwit their e-commerce counterparts. Though one can argue that such omni-channel experience can be provided through a mobile app, the app space is getting cluttered. The number of mobile apps in Google Play Store is more than 1.6 million. With constraints in memory and storage space in mobile devices, the stickiness of apps is very poor especially in India. Wi-Fi provides a great opportunity for business to connect with the proximal customers, without the need for developing a mobile app and inducing its adoption which in itself is a difficult task. An add-on could be internet connectivity!
The Indian telcos have been laggards in adopting Wi-Fi to complement their mobile service. Off late, realising the cost effectiveness of Wi-Fi, the mobile operators in India have started deploying Wi-Fi hotspots for data off-loading. With the technology advantages offered by Wi-Fi Direct and Wi-Fi Aware, it is time that joint partnerships are formed between system integrators, telcos and B2C enterprises to deploy Wi-Fi based networks and systems such that customers get personalised proximal information, and economic data off-loading; enterprises get customer attention; and telcos benefit through data offloading and save their precious mobile network capacity.
By Rahul Mishra and V. Sridhar
Rahul Mishra is founder at Rytangle.com, V Sridhar is professor, IIIT-Bangalore.