Free wi-fi access in the UK is supposed to be a global leader- but how “free” is the internet access?Recent research by the Office for National Statistics showed that 4.9 million people connected through hotspots such as hotels, cafes and airports over the last year in the UK, up from 0.7 million in 2007.
But there’s a big catch.
These hotspots usually either come with a charge or require you to be a customer – buying a superfluous sandwich or a beer in order to get your internet access.
Wi-fi provider The Cloud serves many cafes and restaurants, including Pizza Express, Eat and Pret A Manger – but their users must be prepared to pay to eat.
And BT recently announced a partnership with Heineken pubs where wi-fi is on the house – starting with 100 pubs in London and expanding to 300 throughout the UK by 2012. But again, you have to be a customer.
Many councils have realised the potential benefits of community wireless access and tried to launch free wi-fi schemes. Many have failed.
Probably the most trumpeted example was in Swindon, which aimed to have free wi-fi emanating from the top of lampposts for the whole town by April 2010. A loan was made to a private provider, but the money ran out and private sponsors were hard to come by, the council says.
Now only one small section of the town is covered.
But while councils and other bodies have struggled in the UK, there are many successful free wireless internet projects around the world.
Many US cities – including Denver, Raleigh and Seattle – have free access in some areas, usually the centre. Bologna in Italy has a similar set-up. Taipei in Taiwan currently has major public sites covered.
NYCwireless is a non-profit organisation that builds free public wireless networks in parks and open spaces in New York City, including a newly announced outdoor space covering the area between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.
There is some progress in the UK where Bristol has a free and open network in much of the city centre.
The council says this is done at minimal cost because decades ago they purchased old cable ducts allowing them to create their own broadband network.
In 2007, the City of London initiated “free” wireless access, touting its importance for traders, bankers and brokers to access data on the move – but only the first 15 minutes are actually free.
Virgin Media plans to roll out free public wi-fi in London to compete with BT’s Openzone – the catch being that customers must subscribe to Virgin’s broadband service at home to access the fastest speeds at no cost.
Of course, there would be many people who would question the need for free public wi-fi, even in city centres. We don’t expect free electricity or free public transport, so why should people get free internet?
But the advocates see it as a move that could stimulate business and provide a boost to quality of life. But the powers-that-be can’t seem to agree on whether funding of any sort should go to free wi-fi, particularly in these straitened times.
And this attitude is why some people say the private sector is a more viable route. For now, most Britons will have to fork out for the paying for their emails and browsing..