Facebook this week began the commercial rollout of a new “Facebook Wi-Fi” system for businesses. It melds location-based check-ins and Wi-Fi logins into an integrated process — giving users free wireless access at participating businesses when they check in via the social network, using their Facebook credentials.
Sound pretty cool? Seattle-based Facebook engineers Mohit Talwar and Adrian Potra thought so when they started working on the project a year ago at a Facebook hackathon. (In fact, the project started at the same hackathon that Facebook held on the eve of its IPO last May.) They put together an early prototype using open source software and off-the-shelf routers.
The project was well-received by their peers at the conclusion of the hackathon, and the engineers ended up presenting it to Facebook executives including “Zuck” and “Schrep” — better known as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and CTO Mike Schroepfer — who liked it, as well.
Talwar and Potra continued to develop the project, with help from others, at a subsequent Facebook hackathon. Since then they’ve been able to pass the project on to a dedicated team that developed and tested it further in preparation for the commercial rollout.
“It’s been many months in the making, but it started off at a couple hackathons,” Talwar said.
Talwar and Potra, who both joined Facebook from Microsoft, have kept their roles working on other Facebook products but have watched with pride as their idea has reached the point of a commercial rollout.
“Coming up with an idea and seeing it realized is very, very rewarding for us,” said Potra.
Facebook Wi-Fi works with Cisco Meraki wireless routers, as explained in this Meraki blog post. Facebook say the benefits for businesses include richer information about their customers and better engagement with Facebook users. Business can also target specific advertisements and offers to those customers via Facebook. The businesses also get extra promotion when those customers share their check-ins with their friends.
Don’t worry, you can choose to keep your check-ins private, or use a special code from some businesses, and still get online. Communication between the Facebook backend and the user’s device or computer is encrypted to protect the security of the user’s login credentials. In addition, to protect privacy, Facebook says its servers don’t have access to the user’s browsing session while online.
What’s the benefit for users? Facebook says the service should encourage more businesses to offer free wireless access. The service was tested and well-received by customers at Philz Coffee and other businesses in California.
An FAQ on the Facebook Wi-Fi system is available here.