Travelling in a Connected World: The Importance of Wi-fi for the Roaming Australian

Nigel Phair

Travelling in a Connected World: The Importance of Wi-fi for the Roaming Australian

By Nigel Phair, Director of UNSW Canberra Cyber


Key Issues

●       Australians are more connected than ever, both at home and abroad. 89% of Australian adults now access the internet multiple times a day, with 80% watching video content and 60% listening to audio content.

●       Public wi-fi can be a convenient and affordable way to stay connected but people need to be wary of the risks, like logging into online banking,and take steps to stay online.

●       Sensitive services such as internet banking, should not be accessed via these means. 

●       Hotel wi-fi should be treated the same as public wi-fi and not used for sending sensitive credentials.

●       Users should create strong passwords and if they are unsure of the security of an unknown network, they should use a virtual private network connection (VPN) when accessing critical systems, such as online banking or shopping.

●       The provision of a safe and secure wi-fi internet connection is a good user experience.  It reduces online victimisation and crime.



Australia is a connected country and locals are early and eager adopters of new technology.  With nearly 27 million mobile handset subscribers[1] (against a population of 25 million) in Australia, internet users love the idea of being constantly connected, particularly when they travel, whether that be posting on social media or staying in touch with the office.  To enable this, Australians look for ways to connect, often via free civic wi-fi hotspots in public spaces, a restaurant, café or via their accommodation provider. 

Whilst a connected society should be encouraged, with the ability to always be online, there are some things internet users need to consider when connecting via an unknown wi-fi source to stay safe online.


Consumer Expectations

A good internet connection is now a common expectation of consumers and no longer considered a special amenity.  Digital-savvy customers now use a variety of devices to connect to the internet in order to interact with digital content, services, experiences and brands.  Consumers leverage this connectivity for the purposes of entertainment, education, knowledge, social sharing and commerce.

Strong consumer demand for communications services is anticipated to continue well into the future, with interest for communications goods and services growing faster than that of other goods and services in the economy. Some key facts include:

●     89% of Australian adults (100% among those aged 18–34) access the internet – going online multiple times a day.  Content use and, more specifically, demand for video content over the internet, is increasing.

●     59% of Australians having watched content online. Service providers are responding to this data-intensive demand by expanding platforms and services to meet their customers’ online needs.

●     80% watch video content online.

●     60% listen to audio content online.[2]

Internet-enabled mobile services are now used by the majority of Australians, with recent rapid growth from 8 per cent in 2006 to 76 per cent in 2016.  Similarly, consumer demand for data in Australia has grown rapidly in recent years.[3]  Australians downloaded 3.6 million terabytes (or 3.6 exabytes) of data in the three months ended 31 December 2017, a 38.6% increase over the same period of a year earlier.[4]


Free Public Wi-fi 

A growing number of restaurants, businesses and cities now offer free wi-fi, though they all vary in terms of their speed and reliability.  Some are free, others require users to give up some personal information, such as date of birth and an email address, to get online.  No matter how keen an internet user is to get online, they should check the terms and conditions before connecting – they could be giving up more than they think.  Even if it isn’t required to supply an email address or phone number to get online, the device being used to browse can still be logged and associated with the user’s location, which may lead to targeted advertising.

When browsing online, cookies will be used, whether the user is aware of it or not. Cookies are small pieces of information built into the script of a website that collect information whilst browsing. Many shopping centres and the shops inside them use their free wi-fi to track consumers, with the collected data able to log the visitor's time spent in the centre, where they spent it and what websites they visited.  Data such as what websites were clicked on, what was read and how long was spent on each page are important for targeted marketing purposes. 

A public wi-fi hotspot isn’t required by law to be secure from potential online threats, so it’s best to treat it as unsecured.


Hotel wi-fi 

Wi-fi is an important factor for the connected traveller when they're choosing a hotel.  99 per cent of Australian hotels currently offer wi-fi as a service to guests.  Most hotels (65 per cent) do not charge for basic level of wi-fi access – though that may only be in the foyer – whilst a further 31 per cent offer it free to customers on a conditional basis (such as being a member of their loyalty program).  Less than five per cent of hotels require guests to pay for wi-fi.  Hotels have realised that a level of internet access should be provided free so that guests can answer emails or update their social media channels, but when guests want to download or stream content then they are nearly always required to pay for premium bandwidth usage.[5] As Richards states in a recent article on hotel wifi in Australia: 

[C]onsumer expectations have outpaced the ability for hoteliers to react[6] 

In December 2018, the Marriott hotel chain reported a data breach affecting the personal details of up to half a billion guests who made reservations at its Starwood properties.  A combination of name, address, phone number, email, passport numbers, and other personal details, including credit card numbers and expiry dates of customers were exposed.  Marriott chief executive Arne Sorenson stated "We fell short of what our guests deserve and what we expect of ourselves.”[7]

Hotels, particularly via their Wi-Fi networks have long been a successful avenue for cyber criminals as state-sponsored hackers take a keen interest in the sector to catch high-value targets that may inadvertently stray into unprotected networks. 

[I]nternational hotel chains, in ­particular, are also a soft target when it comes to financial crimes, from stealing identities to pilfering credit card numbers via point-of-sale transaction.[8] 

The availability and cost of bandwidth is dropping rapidly.  International bandwidth prices are plummeting.  It's good news for carriers, but also for hotels and subsequently consumers.  Lower cable prices help contain internet service providers' costs, and even if broadband plan prices don't change, it helps to expand user download allowances.[9] Yet, Australia is ranked 24th out of 50 countries for quality and availability of free wireless hotel broadband.[10]

Hotel wi-fi is designed for easy and frictionless access and guest devices are connecting to insecure, non-encrypted wi-fi networks.  Similarly, to free public wi-fi, internet users should not use hotel wi-fi – or for that matter the internet enabled computer terminals in a hotel business centre – for sensitive transactions, including username and password for accessing a work computer system, or internet logins and passwords.


Household Connectivity 

The affordability of communications services for households has improved in aggregate and over recent years. Consumers are getting better value as prices stay the same or fall, while product inclusions (such as data) increase.  The Australian market for communications services is responding to strong consumer demand and different tastes by providing greater choice and products at a range of price points.[11]

Many Australian users have home wi-fi connections.  They are able to harden these connections using anti-virus software on all devices and set the software to automatically check for updates on a daily basis.  They can also change the default administrator password on wi-fi routers and ensure any remote management is disabled.  This combination of activities can adequately secure a network against malicious hackers.

Many travellers use residential wi-fi when staying at an Airbnb property.  Airbnb is built on trust, the concept of allowing a complete stranger to stay in a host’s house. This trust is gained by providing a safe and secure place for people to stay, whether on holiday or a business trip. Whilst the physical element of this trust is historically based around secure door locks, it also now includes the provision of safe and secure internet access.

Australia has more than 138,000 active Airbnb listings resulting in 5.94m guest arrivals in the past year.[12] Using the Australian household average of 88% internet connectivity[13], there are approximately over 121,000 listed Airbnb properties with internet access.


Safe Online Experience

Offering free wi-fi is a great way to create a unique and memorable experience.  Providing the following user experience will result in a safe and secure online experience:

  1. Fast Connections: Expectations for what constitutes a fast connection are continually increasing, ensure the provision of sufficient (and fast) bandwidth.
  2. Reliable and Secure Connection: Most people are looking for a trustworthy online experience. Ensure up to date firewalls, anti-virus protection and patching.
  3. Ease of Connection: Be wary of where internet access username and passwords are posted, though explain how users can access this information. 

Many travellers may not be aware of the risks they face when interacting in the online environment, but there are some simple steps they can take to better protect their personal and financial information online.  Just as they safe guard their physical belongings by locking doors and keeping hold of wallets, it is equally important they protect themselves online against phishing attacks and identity theft.

Using strong passwords lowers a travellers overall risk of a security breach, but they do not replace the need for other effective security controls, such as installing anti-virus software and updates to your operating system on their devices.  Using a virtual private network (VPN) to protect their sensitive communications is also a good idea. A VPN encrypts all communications between the device and the remote VPN endpoint, such as a company network.



Strong consumer demand for communications services will continue well into the future, driven by new digital services and technological innovations.  This is great news for Australian travellers, however they need to be wary when connecting to unsecure wi-fi networks. 

[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics. Mobile Handset Subscribers. []

[2] Australian Communications and Media Authority.  Communications Report 2016/17. [

[3] Department of Communications and The Arts.  Trends and drivers in the affordability of communications services for Australian households. July 2017

[4] ibid

[5] Hotel Management.  Over 96% of Australian hotels offer free WiFi: TAA report.  [

[6] Richards, T.  Why is Wi-Fi so slow in Australian hotels? Can it get better? [

[7]Nine News. Massive data breach at Marriott’s hotels

[8] Sentonas, M.  Hotels at centre of Wi-Fi hits. The Weekend Australian (27 February 2018)

[9]  Chrigwin, R.  Great time to shift bytes: International bandwidth prices are in free fall. [

[10] Ironside, R.  Aussie hotels defend right to charge guests for in room Wi-Fi.  [

[11] Department of Communications and The Arts. Above n 3

[13] Australian Bureau of Statistics.  Household Internet Access.  []