Facebook(s fb) and Cisco Systems(s csco) might seem like strange bedfellows, but on Wednesday they revealed a partnership that could turn the world’s biggest social network into the gateway for Wi-Fi access at business establishments across the country.
Consumers are increasingly expecting Wi-Fi to be free when they visit restaurants, malls, hotels and tourist attractions. Increasingly those businesses are obliging, but they want something in return, said Chris Spain, a VP in Cisco’s enterprise networking group. Cisco and Facebook are prepared to deliver that quid pro quo in the form of detailed analytics about their customers.
Called Facebook Wi-Fi Service, the setup lets a business to do away with password-protected networks and registration screens, substituting a customer’s Facebook credentials for a login. Just as you can Facebook to register and log into many apps and websites, you can the same credentials to get online over the MGM Grand’s Wi-Fi networks in Las Vegas. The MGM and several other Cisco enterprise wireless customers around the world are piloting the technology.
But the Wi-Fi program isn’t the same as Facebook Login for developers, which is actually trying to verify a user’s identity. Facebook Wi-Fi isn’t sharing the customer’s name with the network owner; instead it’s supplying the business demographic and social data drawn from the customer’s profile, Spain said. The data is anonymous, Spain stressed, but it could be used to send customers specific marketing promotions while they’re connected to the network. It also could be used by businesses to get very detailed information on who their customers are and how they’re using their services, he said.
For instance, the MGM has a huge Wi-Fi network of hundreds if not thousands of access points. It could gather a lot of data from that network, such as where people are congregating in its casino, which shops are being frequented and at what times. It can tell if people in one area of the hotel tend to stay put or move around. What Facebook brings to the table is a huge repository of data – not just age and gender, but stated “likes” for anything from Starbucks(s sbux) coffee to heavyweight boxing.
MGM could then mine that data in real-time for clues on what services to promote to those customers – an coupon for a drink at the sports book would go to the football fan, while an invitation to the MGM’s famous lion habitat would go to the self-proclaimed animal lover.
I’ll be the first to admit this sounds a little scary no matter how anonymous the data supposedly remains. While I realize Facebook collects tremendous amounts of data about its customers, which it then shares with advertisers and other parties for a fee, Facebook Wi-Fi takes that model one step further. It’s not just the social network that knows my likes and dislikes, but also the physical network I’m connected to.
Still, I have little doubt that this will prove to be a popular feature if these pilots are successful. Cisco is the largest supplier of enterprise Wi-Fi networks in the world, and Facebook is, of course, is the largest social network in the world, so there’s no question that this technology can scale quickly. People like their Wi-Fi free and they don’t want to go through a lot of steps to access it. If Facebook credentials are one thing, they’re convenient.