Cisco and Facebook have become unusual friends in a new collaboration that offers free Wi-Fi to consumers who "check in" to a participating business via a Facebook account.
The service, called Cisco Connected Mobile Experience with Facebook Wi-Fi, promises to give consumers quick access to Wi-Fi at airports, hotels and corner stores, according to officials and a Cisco blog posted Wednesday.
Instead of going through a sometimes painful process of finding and typing in a password for a Wi-Fi hotspot, a user with a smartphone, tablet or laptop could connect to a business's Wi-Fi router and get directed to the business's Facebook page. The user clicks a blue button and receives free Wi-Fi access, Cisco and Facebook officials explained in an interview Thursday. Facebook has also posted an FAQ to help users and businesses with the process.
For Cisco, the world's largest Wi-Fi equipment maker, the collaboration will expand Cisco's potential to sell businesses a network appliance called the Mobility Services Engine. Facebook, meanwhile, gains a huge boost in its ongoing attempts to bring local ads to the social network's more than 800 million monthly mobile users.
Businesses that set up the service, meanwhile, get access to anonymous, aggregated information on visitors to a store, such as age, gender and location. A mall, hotel, airport or store can also follow where the most users gather, for how long, and at what time of day to better offer them new products, coupons or promotions.
"It might look like an unusual marriage, but we've got the best of social networking and business intelligence combined," said Chris Spain, vice president of product management at Cisco.
Asked if Facebook is in a race against Google to reach more local businesses for ad opportunities, Facebook's Erick Tseng, head of mobile products and strategy, downplayed the competitive angle. "We're really excited about the local marketing opportunity with Facebook Wi-Fi, but have nothing immediate to announce about how it ties to advertising," Tseng said. "I don't know about any race [with Google], but we want to see as many businesses as makes sense that want Facebook Wi-Fi. We decided there's no better way than getting to the top with Cisco."
Partnering with Cisco, the world's largest networking provider, gives Facebook access to large businesses that may have thousands of local retail outlets and likely already run Cisco networking gear in their network operations. "We have the best partner out there, from the enterprise angle, and the world's biggest brains in the business," Tseng said.
The partnership announcement also evoked immediate concerns about user privacy. Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, tweeted that the Cisco-Facebook free Wi-Fi service is a "scary proposition ... hink about the amount of personal data they will collect!"
In response, Tseng said, "Whatever concerns there are about what data might be shared are patently false." He said every visitor to a store using the service can bypass the Facebook check-in link, and connect to the store's Wi-Fi, which may or may not be free, depending on the store.
Even if a user chooses a Facebook check-in to get free Wi-Fi, Tseng explained, the user has the ability to set a privacy setting each time. The privacy control can be set to allow only the user to know what websites or Facebook pages are visited. At check-in, the Facebook server will only authenticate the Facebook member. "Any traffic or website visited, we at Facebook never see," Tseng said.
Spain said Cisco's Mobility Services Engine (MSE) will give each business offering free Wi-Fi a dashboard to see anonymous network data on information including user locations, whether users are new or repeat visitors, and the time spent in a location. "All the information comes from the network and that information is typically collected without knowledge of who the user is," he said.
Tseng said the Facebook Insight data about a user remains on Facebook.com and stays separate from the Cisco Wi-Fi data kept at the MSE appliance for the local business to access.
Facebook Wi-Fi first launched a year ago with a pilot test in the San Francisco area with 25 merchants. By the end of six months, the merchants said they had seen a three-fold increase in check-ins on their business Facebook pages. "For a small business that means a lot," Tseng said.
Four months ago, Facebook partnered with Wi-Fi hardware partner Meraki, and expanded its Facebook Wi-Fi to 1,000 merchants in 50 countries, Tseng said. Meraki was purchased by Cisco last November for $1.2 billion.
A pilot test with two Bonefish Grill restaurants is also underway. Facebook and Cisco plan to reach larger companies and many smaller ones in the future, but didn't elaborate.
This article, Facebook and Cisco partner to offer free Wi-Fi at stores , was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is email@example.com.
Read more about wireless networking in Computerworld's Wireless Networking Topic Center.