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August 13, 2016 / Jim Fenton

Home is where you don’t have to accept the Wi-Fi terms and conditions

2445601775_958aa5afbf_mYou arrive at your hotel after a long day of travel. Hungry and tired, you pick up the phone to call room service. There’s no dial tone, but after about 10 seconds, a recorded announcement starts to play:

Important! Please listen carefully before using. Your use of this telephone is your acknowledgement and agreement that you agree with the terms set forth as follows: By using this telephone, you agree to all terms, conditions, and notices contained herein. The Hotel reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to terminate your access to all or part of the telephone system, with or without notice.

All materials, information, and services available through this telephone are provided “as is”. The Hotel accepts no liability for your use of the telephone, including but not limited to damage to your ears, hearing assistance devices, or other equipment. Under no circumstances shall the hotel, its subsidiaries, affiliates, owner, or representatives be liable for any direct, indirect, punitive, incidental, special, or consequential damages that result from the use of, or inability to use, the telephone.

Press 1 to indicate your acceptance of these terms and conditions.

Silly? Infuriating? Yes. But this is exactly what the vast majority of hotel and other quasi-public Wi-Fi networks put us through.

What’s the justification for this? A frequently cited reason is that it’s important to make the acceptable use policy for the use of the network clear: you must not use the network to send spam, spread malware, and such. But don’t many of the same concerns apply to telephones, where you similarly must not use the phone to make telephone threats, harass people, and so forth? We don’t seem to need an explicit display of the acceptable use policy there.

Much of the language in these agreements doesn’t have to do with acceptable use so much as protecting the operator of the network if, for some reason, the network doesn’t perform as desired. This might be of some concern if the user is paying for the service, but increasingly Wi-Fi service is provided for free. Are there any documented cases where the operator of a Wi-Fi network has been sued for damages over the use of the network?

There are other user experience issues as well. These networks often spontaneously forget that you have accepted the terms and conditions. Having to re-accept the terms once each day is typical, but it can happen as often as each time a device connects. Moving from one location to another, such as from a hotel room to the lobby or convention area, or from one Starbucks location to another, often requires reacceptance of the terms as well.

For some reason the systems that implement this operate very slowly. Often the enforcement is done centrally (in the cloud), and perhaps there isn’t a business justification for providing enough capacity to handle requests quickly enough. Regardless, this makes the user experience worse yet.

Requiring acceptance of Wi-Fi terms and conditions causes other problems as well: it prevents some functions from working as intended. If one loses a Wi-Fi-only Apple iPad, that iPad’s Find Device feature may not work at all, even if it had been previously connected to the network. Acceptance requirements can also interfere with cellular/Wi-Fi devices that connect to a Wi-Fi network, making that the preferred route for data traffic, even though communication is blocked via that route.

We’re wasting lots of time trying to get connected to Wi-Fi networks. What does it take to get Wi-Fi connections to work the way they’re supposed to, other than on our home networks?

Skaneanteles_Hotel_room” by Skaneanteles Suites is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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