Carol Dahlke probably wasn’t the typical small-business Wi-Fi customer 10 years ago. She and her husband had purchased a 1700s-era farm in rural Lyme, Conn., and they were in the process of turning the former dairy operation into a series of agricultural offerings: a farmer’s market, a beef cattle farm and a coffee roasting company out of an old barn along with a cafe known as Ashlawn Farm Coffee.
She knew her business was likely early in using Wi-Fi in her area, which she describes as "out in the sticks," but she also predicted that one day her customers – and her small business – would rely on providing Internet service. "I think that to have a competitive advantage at all, you have to have Wi-Fi," Dahlke said, looking back on her decision.
But there are some small business owners who avoid installing and providing Wi-Fi because they think it’s too costly or too technical, among other reasons found in new research by Bredin and Comcast Business. Still, three out of five small business owners who do not offer Wi-Fi to patrons said they were planning to do so or considering.
Though the reasons they gave for not providing Wi-Fi service explain their hesitation, research and other small business owners’ experiences show these challenges might actually be myths.
Myth 1: There is too much technical support required to set up small business Wi-Fi.
Like many technologies, equipment was more expensive and difficult to use when Wi-Fi first came on the market.
"There’s a lot of truth to the fact that when the technology was first produced, you had to be a little bit technologically savvy to be able to set it up," said John Gasowski, Comcast’s director of Business Internet Product Management.
When Dahlke first installed Wi-Fi almost 10 years ago, her telecommunications company sent her a device in the mail, which she recalls was a "clunky old setup."
Now, the software included with devices is more intuitive and includes wizards that walk you through the installation process. "It’s almost difficult to make a mistake," Gasowski said.
Many companies, like Comcast, do not even require the business owner to purchase a separate device to set it up, saving on some of the costs that used to be required for Wi-Fi. In the past, the customer would have to purchase a retail device and plug it into their modem or DSL equipment.
"I don’t think some (business owners) realize how easy it is nowadays," Gasowski said. "It’s literally plug-and-play."
Myth 2: Wi-Fi will be too much of a distraction to employees.
Some managers fear their employees will spend more time on social networking sites than performing their jobs. But, as Gasowski points out, offering Wi-Fi for employees might actually boost their productivity.
"I think Wi-Fi provides a convenience and a tool that the employees can use, in most cases to perform their jobs better because they have access to Wi-Fi to find information easier," Gasowski said.
Three out of five survey respondents who do not offer public Wi-Fi said they do have a Wi-Fi network that is used only for business functions. So in many cases, those employees already have the opportunity to take advantage of using the internet if they want.
To prevent such distraction, Dahlke suggests having rules in place. At Ashlawn Farm Coffee, for example, her employees are not allowed to use their cell phones.
Myth 3: Offering Wi-Fi is just too expensive.
Like the change in WiFi equipment over the years, price has fluctuated as well. Wi-Fi devices typically cost more than $100 when they first debuted on the market, but consumers can find them for half that price now.
Customers no longer have to purchase expensive equipment. Instead, technology companies can offer monthly fees for businesses to rent devices or cost-saving packages that provide both private and public WiFi spots.
According to Bredin’s survey, 32 percent of respondents who do not offer public Wi-Fi said they agreed or strongly agreed that providing the service would be too expensive.
"I think they’re thinking the devices cost a lot, when in fact they don’t," Gasowski said. A small business owner could be equipped with Wi-Fi for less than $50 for basic service and sharing a broadband with the public.
Comcast, for example, offers free private WiFi that is separate from the public Wi-Fi hotspot, which a small business owner receives as part of a package. This option allows business owners to maintain a private, secure network separate from the one they offer to their customers.
In terms of monthly payments, small business owners could expect to pay as low as $20 a month with a contract through some providers, Gasowski said.
"Even those costs, with the return that the business generates by providing free Wi-Fi, they’re offset pretty easily," he said.
If an average restaurant can attract two additional customers per month by offering free Wi-Fi, the customers’ bills likely make up the cost of offering the Internet, Gasowski explained.
Bredin’s research also shows that Wi-Fi draws customers and increases sales. Almost 70 percent of survey respondents said that Wi-Fi has encouraged repeat business, and 70 percent of food and beverage businesses said offering Wi-Fi results in higher sales per customer per visit.
Dahlke’s second Ashlawn Farm Coffee location sits by a train station in Saybrook, Conn., and thrives off travelers stopping for a warm drink or meal while they access the Internet for business or personal needs.
"Why wouldn’t you have Wi-Fi? A customer might be put off when a business doesn’t offer WiFi," she said.
An owner of a bed-and-breakfast in Oregon told the National Federation of Independent Businesses that offering Wi-Fi was a "negligible" investment. The only overhead cost was an extra router to keep the business’ WiFi network separate from the public network. "Free Wi-Fi works best for any business that wants to encourage customers to spend time in their establishment," the NFIB’s article states.
Myth 4: Customers might misuse Wi-Fi.
An article by FindLaw, a Thomson Reuters publication, cautions small business owners that offering Internet access comes with some security risk. Someone could download copyrighted materials using your Wi-Fi hotspot or engage in other illegal online activities at your location.
While these things can happen, there are a number of security measures business owners can put in place. To prevent security breaches, the article suggests using an encryption service and placing a password on your Wi-Fi network so you can share it with paying customers.
Gasowski said some providers and software services allow business owners to limit the types of websites customers can visit. Don’t want anyone accessing gambling websites while dining or working? You can block that type of site from your network.
He said Comcast is working on options that would allow business owners to control how and when customers use their public Wi-Fi networks. Beyond allowing businesses to schedule times of use or block types of sites, Comcast plans to allow them to access metrics that give insight into how people access the Internet, including the types of devices they use.
Myth 5: Customers might loiter or block areas of my business because of free Wi-Fi.
At Ashlawn Farm Coffee, Dahlke has noticed that people who linger to use the Wi-Fi are often polite. "I think they see if there are plenty of tables available, they’ll linger, but when it starts to get busy, usually they tend to be polite and move along," she said.
And the added benefit of a customer lingering to use the Internet is that "they’ll end up having two coffees or a sandwich or soup, so it benefits us in that way," Dahlke added.
But according to the research by Bredin, 23 percent of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that offering Wi-Fi would encourage customers to loiter or block areas of the business.
Gasowski said there are ways to prevent this fear if it does happen. Many Wi-Fi providers offer scheduling capabilities to either allow or block Wi-Fi access during certain times. A small business owner might choose, for example, to disable Wi-Fi during its busiest hours or when a business is closed.
With these options in place, and improvements in equipment and service costs, Gasowski said business owners that provide Wi-Fi are already seeing increased sales and objectives.
You might think that Wi-Fi at a doctor’s office might not drive patients. But patients typically spend a lot of time in waiting rooms, so a doctor offering Wi-Fi could have an advantage over one who does not.
"It’s almost like a statement of professionalism that you’re with the new technology and the latest advancements," Gasowski said.