The new generation wifi. Photo: Supplied

Content Partnership: Wifi has been around for a relatively short space of time, about 20 years, but the global economic value it provides is put at US$3.3 trillion. That figure is growing rapidly, as are the number of connected devices in our homes. Technology to help parents control children’s access is also making a significant leap forward, as Mark Jennings writes.

Just about everyone with teenage kids will be familiar with the words “is there wifi here?” and “what’s the wifi password?” The need or desire to be ‘connected’ at all times, in as many locations as possible, has changed the way the world works.

The technology enabling wireless connection to the internet has become so ubiquitous that in 2021 there are more wifi enabled devices than there are people in the world. Juniper, a British research company specialising in technology estimates there are now close to 40 billion connected devices – up from 13.4 billion in 2015.

In Aotearoa, a Colmar Brunton survey commissioned by Vodafone NZ asked 1000 people to rank the importance of wifi in daily life. Respondents placed wifi third, behind family and taking a bath or shower, but ahead of a car, washing machine, TV and make-up.

Increasing home entertainment options, working from home and schooling requirements (particularly during lockdowns) have driven the demand for faster and better wifi in homes around the world.

So too, has the increasing number of wifi enabled devices we now own. Vodafone NZ product and propositions lead, Robin Kelly says, “Currently the average Kiwi home has approximately nine internet connected devices but it is still significantly lower than the average of 18 found in US households.”

Strong wifi in the home has rapidly become a big deal. In January, Vodafone NZ started offering its SuperWifi product with a “wall-to-wall” guarantee. The offer provides two DecoX20 devices that “mesh” together so there are no dead spots and no need for wifi extenders.

According to Kelly, “poor wifi is the number one pain point in the market today”.

The DecoX20 devices use wifi 6, the latest generation of wifi. US technology writer Aaron Forbes says that in theory, wifi 6 capable routers could hit speeds 250 percent faster than the current wifi 5 devices.

“The new technology offers connectivity improvements for wifi 6 enabled devices while maintaining backwards compatibility for older devices. It works better in higher-density environments, supports an increased capacity of devices, improves the battery life of compatible devices, and boasts higher data transfer rates than its predecessors.”

The SuperWifi devices come with another advance in consumer technology – parental controls that are easy to use.

Vodafone’s Kelly says the Colmar Brunton survey found it is increasingly acceptable for younger kids to own an internet connected device. 61 percent felt it was appropriate for children as young as 10-years-old to own a smart phone and 51 percent said yes to a PC or laptop.

The findings played a major role in Vodafone NZ selecting the DecoX20 product because it offers parental controls through a downloadable app.

According to Kelly, “The app itself is very intuitive and it gets you through the process. We had TP-link (the manufacturer) tailor it for us. We have made it super simple and had it configured for our own network…all parents need to do is follow three or four easy steps.

“There are pre-configured profiles: pre-teen, teen and adult but you can go beyond these if you want to.”

Robin Kelly and family.  Photo: Supplied

Kelly says he realised how far technology had advanced when he tried out the parental controls on his own family.

“I didn’t really realise that you could use technology to take back parental power. I was aware of filters you could get to plug into the modem but wasn’t sure I could be bothered with that. The idea of having something at a wifi level and not a device level, I really liked that idea.

“I guess like other parents, you often find yourself walking up behind them (children), you see them jump between applications and you wonder – what were they watching or doing?

“I was able to create profiles for my son and daughters. They are 12-years-old and under, so adult content and gambling are not available.

“It has given me a sense of comfort, I know they are in a safe environment. You can’t be there every second of the day and particularly for early teens and down it gives you piece of mind, without the kids feeling like you are bringing the walls down on them with draconian measures.”

New Zealand’s independent online safety organisation, Netsafe, agrees with Kelly that improved technology has changed the game.

“Five years ago the tools were quite complicated and required a lot of time. Now they are much easier to install, much easier to operate and the information provided is much better,” says CEO Martin Cocker.

“The Vodafone product, Google family link and the products from some of the security vendors like Norton etc. are pretty good options now. What I would say to parents is that if you have given it a go in the past and not found it a good experience it is worth looking at these new products.”

‘These tools are effective in that they can remove devices, provide information on how long kids have been logged on and put limits on the products they can see.”

­­­­­­­Dr Ethan Plaut, senior lecturer in communication at the University of Auckland says the new tools are good but older kids will always find a way around them and parents have to be realistic.

“Controlling children’s media consumption is a really old problem. It started with printed content, then television and now online. Their is a long history of parents trying to control what kids are reading or watching.

“The thing that has changed is the the sheer volume of content that is available over the internet on devices. How best to manage that is hard.”

“The big social media platforms are largely failing with content filtering attempts. I am not necessarily being critical of them, it is a legitimately hard problem but the reality is we are not going to programme our way out of this.”

“It is not surprising that parents will turn to tools like this, but the tools can’t be the only way we handle the problem. We really need to spend time with kids as they navigate and deal with the internet.

“Parents also have to accept that video games can be places where teenagers socialise. They can essentially be group phone calls with friends. Games can be intellectually productive and real good skills can be learnt from them. But playing them all day is bad just like watching movies all day would be bad.

“Turning off the devices, for a period of time is a good idea. We should be grateful that we live in New Zealand, can put the devices down and go to the beach or go for a ride,” says Plaut.

For those that struggle to get their children to part with devices, Vodafone’s SuperWifi can help limit internet usage, says Kelly.

“You can decide on a total amount of time an individual device or profile can access the internet per day, or schedule wifi access for specific devices to switch off at certain times such as bedtime or dinner time. It helps whānau manage a healthy level of internet usage in their homes and spend quality time together without online distractions.”

To find out more about Vodafone SuperWifi see here

Vodafone NZ is a foundation supporter of Newsroom

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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