UK Wifi Hotspots

  • Posted: 17 November 2007 04:07 AM

    The UK is said to be one of the western world leading developers of high speed communication. We have a dominant 3G mobile connection standardization, a high saturation of private homes and business’ using broadband internet connections and a growing rate of internet adoption among seniors. But what do we really offer?

    Homes are limited (mostly) to ADSL lines which the local exchanges struggle to support due to oversized catchment areas and poor urban planning. Those who use cable are mostly limited to a single choice of ISP who were recently bought out by a firm far too large to move quickly and with limited reasonable ambition to upgrade or discount their services. Business’ are mostly tiny by world scale and do not have the cash flow to provide adequate bandwidth for all the services they push.

    My question however is how are we doing in terms of communal connections? Obviously there is no precedent in the UK for city wide connections like those being trailed in the US, and there doesn’t look to be in the foreseeable future. One thing we do reportedly have is a growing market in so called “wifi hotspots”. I thought I’d look into this further in my local area and with the iPhone launch so recently the first and only company that jumped to mind was Cloud whose services are sold as part of the iPhone/02UK service package.

    With later investigation it seems Cloud are doing better than most, with 12 different wifi hotspots within 5 miles of my workplace. Unfortunately, of those 4 are on main roads with little or nothing else around, meaning a special trip would be required just to use their facilities. 6 are pubs (bars) which are crowded, provide little to no seating, no tables and a less than safe atmosphere for easily breakable electronics. 3 are universities and 2 are hotels (not to mention that one is a McDonalds). So, of the 12 hotspots in my area, none are a place I would truly consider a place to take my notebook during the day, especially not in the evening and many fall into multiple “nono” categories. This isn’t looking so useful all of a sudden.

    What then would be the perfect wifi hotspot environment for public or communal access? Well it would have somewhere to sit, preferably with tables or counters for my machine. It would have free access when other products or services were purchased (as apposed to ?30/pcm or worse, ?10/hr as some of the blindly discounted places on other lists charge). It would be a place which wasn’t likely get to raucous or allow for the possibility of someone perching a pint of Guinness on my keyboard. In all likely-hood then it would be a coffee house.

    The coffee houses we do have around here are expensive, sell bad coffee, generally don’t last long and don’t get customers to sit in but rather leave with “coffee to go”. They generally open around 8:30AM and close around 5PM. Perhaps with some extended openings, decent coffee and a reason to stay (hello wifi) we would have a reason to spend an extortionate amount of money for something we could just as well have at home. Pubs figured this out long ago with their different services and extended openings.

    Of course, the wifi would need to be a good, solid speed; best measured by the lag between clicking and playing a youtube video and if the place looked less like a dungeon than the ?25/hr, you can only use our terminals which we got given by the local scrap dealer “cyber-caf?s” of the past… well that would be a bonus.

    The keys then are these: good coffee, extended opening, free, high speed connections over wifi, no security to figure out, pleasant surroundings, somewhere to sit and work/play with company. These are features which the US has had in abundance for many years in many cities, and in some is even over taking them with the Starbucks/iTunes deal (which I love). Is it that much to ask to get such a service in the UK? Perhaps it is, but what then is the problem? I have a few suggestions:

    1. Brits don’t generally walk around showing off notebooks and cell phones and iPods for fear that they will be stolen. They are seldom revealed in public. Of course, the percentage of technology related public thefts doesn’t go up because you are actively staring at it’s screen, they go up when you are lazy. After-all, it’s not hard to see that’s a notebook bag I am carrying is it? This is the basic rule that we don’t do what no one else does, as emphasized by the elevator experiment.

    2. We Brits work from work, where our managers can keep an eye on us. It’s like how we call landlines instead of cell phones for business, even though we know the person we are calling probably isn’t at their desk. Many of us do not have the freedom to work from a cafe for the afternoon, or spend the day “meeting clients”. Any of the reasons a citizen of almost any other country has to be at a wifi hotspot is void is Britain as we are expected to stay pinned to our desks all day. This, thankfully is beginning to change, albeit slowly.

    3. It could just be that there are no such business’ in the UK and that we don’t feel comfortable as business people challenging the past and pushing for the future. I certainly hope this is the case and that someone will find some testosterone in them and just do it soon. Perhaps someone will try it.

    What do you think? The opinion of others repressed in their use of communal wifi, especially those trapped in the land of the grey would be appreciated, but those of our more experienced counterparts in the US and the rest of the world may lend a completely distorted perspective on this as they have already gone through it I would think. Can wifi coffee shops work in Britain and why aren’t they here now?

    [Note: I understand I am massively over generalizing, but that’s what you have to do to see and solve problems, then work on the other side of the scale.]

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    -Matt Cox / Mac Technician / Matt on Twitter