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Boingo Wi-Finder for iOS smartly adds data usage tracking

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Boingo Wireless(s wifi), the company with a virtual Wi-Fi network comprised of more than 500,000 hotspots, officially added a data usage feature to its app for iOS on Thursday. The new Boingo Wi-Finder for iOS(s aapl) is available in the iTunes App Store and remains free of charge, although Boingo’s network services typically have a cost associated. The company does have some free Wi-Fi options, most recently a collaboration with Google(s goog) for free Wi-Fi access sponsored by Google Offers.

The data usage tracker is exactly what a wireless network finder app should include as it demonstrates the benefits of offloading data from expensive cellular networks to lower priced, or free, Wi-Fi hotspots.

Boingo Wi-Fi Finder for iOS monthly data usage metricsI took an early look at the new software on my iPhone 4S and it couldn’t be simpler to use. You just enter the amount of mobile broadband data your smartphone plan allows, as well as your costs on a per Gigabyte basis. The app also needs to know what day of the month your data plan billing cycle starts. After that, the app tracks both Wi-Fi and cellular usage, providing information on how much money you’re saving through using Wi-Fi.

The tracking information appears in an easy-to-read graph and there’s a constantly updated pie chart showing the percentage of time your iPhone or iPad is using Wi-Fi vs cellular data. The software also projects three metrics for the month, based on your usage history: Total data usage; Cellular usage; and Wi-Fi usage. The savings from using Wi-Fi is calculated through your per Gigabyte broadband cost.

Boingo’s updated app keeps the original features from its 2011 debut, so you can use it to find Wi-Fi hotspots nearby. It also includes a free VPN function for secure Wi-Fi connections. I like the addition of the data usage tracking because it can provide a true picture of data usage on both cellular and Wi-Fi networks. We know that Wi-Fi offload can help reduce cellular network demand, but according to research from Parks Associates, 50 percent of smartphone owners don’t know how much data they use each month.

Sure, you could look at your smartphone bill, but that’s after the fact — when you may have overages to pay — and it’s too late to take advantage of Wi-Fi offloading at that point. A combined data usage tool with a Wi-Fi finder provides the opportunity to proactively avoid overages or bandwidth throttling, helping to save money and give a better mobile experience at the same time.

2 Responses to “Boingo Wi-Finder for iOS smartly adds data usage tracking”

  1. Mehmaan

    It’s too bad that the app itself is absolutely horrible to use. Sign up and try using it as your phone connectivity for a month. There are massive, fundamental problems that, to a Boingo user, make it kind of funny to read someone even talking about counting data traffic.

    The biggest problems are:

    1. The user is constantly re-prompted to login to the provider’s captive portal. Every time you roam to a new WAP, the provider re-prompts for credentials, and because Boingo’s app doesn’t run in the background or work with WISPr (, that means entering them manually.

    In many or most of Boingo’s coverage areas, especially dense metros, this happens all the time – often turning around is enough to associate with a different AP. For that reason, even in areas with dense wifi coverage, Boingo is nothing like 3G.

    (Also, most providers don’t even auto-populate the captive portal login form fields in mobile Safari, so choose a short username and password. You’ll be typing it a lot.)

    2. The app requires you to choose an SSID and associate before it tries to sign on. That means jumping between Settings and the app all the time. There’s no indication which SSIDs are and aren’t usable, and no way to associate from within the app.

    It also often fails to login and doesn’t have enough visibility into the failure cause to explain why. While that’s probably mostly caused by signal strength or a semi-functioning WAP/backhaul, the result is that a couple minutes of screwing around to connect is common. While that’s fine for a 3 hour laptop session, it’s all but useless from a phone.

    3. The UX is abysmal and the choice of where to put effort is even worse. Read the App Store reviews of the prior version, where the major new feature was an unbelievable number of nag screens for “Secure me!” or “Buy VPN service!” Think shareware.. only it’s not free.

    Upsell nags wouldn’t be so annoying if the rest of the app and roaming wifi experience was complete. The data counting is another example of this (though at least it has the potential to be useful). As it is, both features seem like installing carpet in a dinghy.

    • Boingo Wireless

      *** Boingo Wireless responds****

      Mehmann, thanks for the thoughtful and thorough comment. While I understand where a number of your line items come from, I’d like to take the opportunity to correct several errors and clarify some of your points.

      Further, you sound like a very knowledgable user, and we’d like to get further information from you so we can better understand the situations where you encounter some of the frustrating behavior. Please email a note to [email protected] and ask that your email be forwarded to the social media team. Or you can follow us at @boingo and we can make arrangements to exchange info in DM.

      To address the issues you’ve raised, I’ve tried to match your structure:

      1. You’re right. We don’t run in the background on iOS, because those are the rules for our application from Apple. On an Android device, you would experience much, much different behavior. Being able to a) run in the background and b) have access to key Wi-Fi APIs would provide a fundamentally different (optimal) behavior. But, alas, we have to play by the rules in order to get the app approved by Apple for distribution in the iTunes store. It is also incorrect to say that our app doesn’t work with WISPr. We have been WISPr compliant for years. Further, since WISPr is a set of “recommendations” and not an actual specification, there are several different flavors of WISPr implementation among the 125+ network operators around the world that we support roaming with. The app manages all of them through a complicated series of scripts that identify which version is in use with that specific operator and submits the user’s credentials in the correct method to complete the authentication. Some operators are better at maintaining their own WISPr compatibility than others, so sometimes you may encounter login failures, but we track overall authentication success rates for our client, so when we see one dropping, we can engage the partner to improve the experience for users. AP association issues are an OS issue that we have no control over — your device has a list of SSIDs that you have previously connected to, and it freely connects with whichever one is available (most recent connects are attempted first). If you’re in a dense RF environment and on the move, you will likely change APs many times, and Wi-Fi is not built for mobile handoff. That’s what 3G/4G is for. Whether or not Safari auto-populates your password is within your control — not the Wi-Fi network operator’s. Go to “Settings” – choose “Safari” – choose “Auto-Fill” – and turn “Names & Passwords” to the ON position.

      2. Correctly stated, this should read: “Apple requires you to choose an SSID and associate before it tries to sign on.” Again, there are significant restrictions on the experience we’re allowed to drive, based on the rules Apple enforces for getting the app approved for distribution. In Android — where we don’t have these restrictions — Boingo’s Wi-Finder makes the experience much simpler, and prompts you to login when a valid partner network is available. As far as login failures, I can understand where that would be frustrating. It happens on occasion, most often when signal strength is low (in many hotspots simply moving 15 feet one way or the other solves this), but also when there are many signals, interference can create a challenging RF environment. It’s the nature of unlicensed spectrum, and the engineering community continues to look for ways to minimize interference while network operators try to tune hotspots — except in locations where they can’t control to macro environment — like the streets of NYC.

      3. Our VPN is free. We don’t charge a dime. It’s included with your membership as a Boingo customer. There is a button on the main screen after you complete a login that simply says, “Secure me!” If you don’t want to use the VPN, don’t push the button. Security is increasingly important, as more and more people with more and more data on their devices are freely connecting to Wi-Fi in public. Most hotspots are OK, but public Wi-Fi is insecure. Much of the data is transmitted in the clear (unless you enforce SSL on every connection, website and service you use), available for half-savvy hackers to capture and parse. Several leading hotspot operators still haven’t closed key vectors that hackers can use to compromise the network or your device. This is why we provide a VPN that is free to use for our customers. It’s important for your safety. If you have your own VPN, use that one instead, but please use some form of protection when on public Wi-Fi.

      The good news is that several of your frustrations are driven by connection/authentication issues that the industry overall is working to resolve. Over the last couple of years, the Wi-Fi Alliance, the Wireless Broadband Alliance and the GSM Association have been working on industry standards for seamless Wi-Fi roaming that will make it look and act much like your 3G/4G signal. The radio on your phone will see the networks in range, determine which ones are enabled for offload by your cellular carrier, connect, identify and authenticate in the background, without you having to choose an SSID and initiate a login. Boingo has been intimately involved in the standards development and is queued to participate in the next round of public trials in the fourth quarter of this year. Because this will be driven at the OS level and enabled by your cellular carrier, this should help overcome existing usability issues based on App Store rules and API restrictions. Once the trials complete in 4Q2012/1Q2013, we expect to deploy support in our managed and operated hotspots (airports, shopping malls, stadiums and restaurants), while strongly encouraging our network roaming partners to do the same.

      Again, please contact us via the email or Twitter identities named above. We’re happy to further engage to see if there are specific aspects that are within our control that we can address.