OpenSignal is a small startup with a very interesting mission: they are creating a database of WiFi access points around the world and are hoping to become the global authority on wireless networks. Their website contains analysis of all of the data they have collected, including the WiFi signal strength of all access points in a given area.
How do they do it? They have a mobile app that Android and iPhone users can download which provides raw data to OpenSignal about the WiFi access points the users come into contact with and the signal strength at any particular location. This app strips any identifying information about the user before sending the WiFi access point signal strength data back to OpenSignal.
So the tradeoff is that OpenSignal, in exchange for the WiFi network information their mobile app users automatically upload to their servers, allow their users to find a better WiFi signal, find nearby WiFi networks, and keep track of their WiFi usage.
OpenSignal’s 2014 U.S. WiFi Report
OpenSignal’s report details the state of WiFi in the U.S. according to the data that their users have sent to them. In the past year, OpenSignal’s users have located and tested the signal strength for nearly 450,000 public WiFi networks.
The report included the following interesting facts:
- The more you pay for a hotel room, the better the strength of the hotel’s WiFi network.
- Last year, Starbucks moved from using AT&T WiFi networks in their stores to Google WiFi networks. The result has been an 80% increase in WiFi speeds.
- Public WiFi networks are more than 600% faster than cell phone provider’s 3G networks and 25% faster than 4G networks in terms of download speeds to mobile devices.
- McDonalds and Best Buy topped the list of businesses offering the fastest public WiFi networks to their in-store customers.
Signal Strength is Nice, But What about Security?
WiFi signal strength and access is undoubtedly important information, but OpenSignal’s study did not include what should be most important question of anyone looking to connect to a WiFi network: how secure is it?
In our rush to always be connected, far too many of us are willing to connect to public WiFi networks without taking any steps to protect ourselves. Consumer Reports published a report in May which detailed that 62% of U.S. adults do nothing to protect their privacy.
Public WiFi networks are completely unencrypted, which means that anyone on the same network can view everything you send and receive from the Internet and your mobile device. It isn’t rocket science: all you need is someone willing to do it and willing to spend a few minutes downloading free software to his or her computer.
If you want to fully protect yourself, your best bet is to use a VPN like PRIVATE WiFi. When connected to a VPN on your mobile device or laptop, all your Internet traffic is sent through an encrypted tunnel, which means that it is protected from all prying eyes.
The truth is that there is no such thing as a “safe” public WiFi network. So while it can be helpful to know which WiFi networks have the strongest signal while you move around in your daily life, be sure that you first take the necessary steps to protect yourself and your data.