Sitting in a coffee bar in London’s busy West End today, I was confronted by two dozen named wireless access points as I opened my laptop and sniffed for connectivity. Waiting for meetings near Covent Garden, I was naturally looking for an open access point to pick up e-mails and send a report before the day started in earnest. What I got was a broadcasted directory of many of the businesses located within 100 meters of my location, vertically as well as horizontally. These were mostly offices, agencies and studios nested in the floors of buildings above and around me, as well as a handful of telco-branded wi-fi and several adjoining coffee shops. I found out that I was near companies called CMG, Insight International and Angus Cranbourn just by checking my Airport connection.  I could also see who was kind enough to provide guest access to their clients and visitors (protected, of course).

This situation unwittingly presents a new kind of commercial advertising relationship with wired (or more to the point, wireless) passersby. An opportunity to brand, to provide a new layer of location information—these access points were broadcasting a veritable directory of businesses in the neighborhood—and even to provide services to business prospects not even met yet. What the IT managers of these companies might see as a security vulnerability could be turned into a commercial opportunity, at least as another layer of advertising and relationship building.

Likewise the commercial hotspot providers in cities and suburbs who close their doors at 10PM on any given night also continue to provide some service, though in a less physically secure fashion, to potential customers in search of late night access as they walk home or drive by. This weekend, I found myself “warwalking” on two occasions, wanting to check e-mail quickly to confirm travel details or stay in contact with home. Not wanting to pay outrageous international data roaming charges, the easiest solution, though not necessarily the most palatable, was to sign up for a T-Mobile hotspot daypass and, when passing by a closed Starbucks somewhere in the city, I was able to grab access standing outside the locked doors of the café. It created an extra branding opportunity for Starbucks, less so for T-Mobile, but also exposed me to a less than secure physical transaction, much like withdrawing money from an ATM in a city center late at night.

How do companies use wireless connections to deepen relationships? Using this last example, café chains could take a cue from some banks’ ATM setups and provide a safe “lobby” in which to pick up wireless access after hours. They could provide me with some compensation in exchange for this out-of-hours brand impression. Competing ad agencies could “broadcast” that they provide better bandwidth amenities for clients, or broadcast some short promotional URL. The opportunities to exploit this simple but overlooked Wi-Fi byproduct are interesting. Now, to go home and change my wireless access point name.

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