Public internet access: who is responsible?

In the first of a series of articles looking at business issues faced by IT managers, we look at the steps companies need to take if they open their networks up to visitors.

The UK has tens of thousands of public Wi-Fi hotpots. Exact estimates of the number vary widely: Ofcom, the industry regulator, last reported on the market in 2007 and calculated that there were 12,000.

Other, more recent industry surveys have put the number at anywhere between 10,000 and 25,000, with the total expected to reach 30,000 by 2012. BT, the UK's largest provider, has 4,000 hotspots alone, under its Openzone brand.

The actual number of locations where mobile workers or consumers can use Wi-Fi is, in reality, far higher. As well as commercial hotspots from providers such as BT Openzone and The Cloud, there are businesses such as cafes, pubs and shops that provide free internet access, but which are not on any national directory.

Then there are the "informal" hotspots: wireless access points owned by consumers or businesses who either knowingly or perhaps unwittingly allow others to use their networks.

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"Large organisations in particular should be looking at making Internet access just a hygiene factor - anyone who is regarded as "friendly" should be able to access the internet directly from their equipment when they are on your site," suggests Clive Longbottom, of IT analysts Quocirca.

"There is nothing more annoying than turning up somewhere with 30 minutes to spare and then finding that there's no Internet access."

A community service, or an unwarranted risk?

Although giving guests and visitors the use of the net is a convenience and for restaurants, cafes and hotels it might well be part of the business model it is not without risk.

Chief among these are issues around data security, including the risk of a malware infection; the risk that "guests" might use up a disproportionate amount of network resources, and the risk that the network owner might be held liable for illegal activity carried out by visitors.

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