The myth of free wi-fi

Woman on laptop

A council leader in Swindon has come under pressure after the town failed in efforts to offer free public wi-fi. So why doesn't the UK have more free wireless internet?

Sitting on a high street, you suddenly realise you need to log on to read an urgent email. You flip open your laptop and you're happily greeted by a long list of available wireless networks.

Then the hoop-jumping begins.

Enter a password, input an access code, purchase a card, buy a latte - it all becomes a massive hassle and you realise a truly free open network is as rare as hens' teeth.

These days, city centres are flooded with hurried business people anxious to access email and make important deals en route to their next meeting.

Then there are tourists, students and a host of other people, all of them eager to get maps, buy things and carry out other myriad tasks.

Start Quote

You don't have to have a Cadillac service with all the bells and whistles but it's a basic requirement these days”

End Quote Sam Churchill Tech blogger

When it comes to wi-fi access overall, the UK is at the front of the global pack.

A recent study 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 catch. These hotspots usually either come with a charge or require you to be a customer - buying a superfluous sandwich or grudgingly grabbing a grapefruit juice in order to get your internet hit.

Wi-fi provider The Cloud serves many cafes and restaurants, including Pizza Express, Eat and Pret A Manger - but users must be ready 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.

London's Islington Council installed a "wireless mile", an area through the borough equipped with free public wi-fi, but access ended as cuts set in.

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.


  • The commonly-seen "Free Public WiFi" option is actually a rogue Windows XP quirk that spreads similarly to a virus
  • The UK has the most registered wi-fi hotspots in the world, according to the Wi-Fi Alliance
  • London Mayor Boris Johnson has pledged to have city-wide wi-fi in time for the 2012 Olympics
  • Sunnyvale, California was the US first city to offer free city-wide wi-fi

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, but much of the city will be covered by October.

The whole of the city of Oulu in Finland is covered, in a partnership with a number of local universities. Its backers say not only does it improve communication, but it is a useful tool for Oulu's online government services.

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.

"We thought: 'What if we can bring the internet to the beautiful spaces in New York City'," says Dana Spiegel, the organisation's executive director. "We bring wireless to everyone and keep people from being chained to their desks."

There is some progress in the UK.

Man uses laptop in park with view of city in background Free public wireless internet is an amenity in many New York City parks

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.

"You don't have to have a Cadillac service with all the bells and whistles," says tech blogger Sam Churchill. "But it's a basic requirement these days, just like water and power in a civilised society, that helps people communicate and keep informed."

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.

In Islington's case, spending cuts led to funds being targeted on core services like adult social care, and the free wi-fi scheme stopped working in March 2011.

"Wi-fi is not something we would put money into," says Kulveer Ranger, an adviser to the London mayor on all things digital. "We put money into things with a direct application to public service, like transport."

And this attitude is why some people say the private sector is a more viable route.

"Enabling the private sector to accomplish this goal is preferable to taxpayer funded efforts," Churchill says. "Make it free for everyone."

For now, most Britons will have to brace themselves for the occasional wi-fi rigmarole.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    @ Ed Avis. If I allow any passer by to use my open network without my knowledge then he could be downloading large amounts of copyrighted material which not only uses up all my fair usage allowance but also leaves me at risk of being prosecuted for downloading the content as it will be traced to my account.

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    @DerekTheWelshMole: Very true indeed. They could also just ensure that file sharing is totally disabled. And re: 3G, it is expensive yes, and not everyone carries the necessary cable with them or has it setup for wifi usage, and more importantly, they may not have a data package or enough credit if on PAYG to access the network at the extortionate data prices set by the network providers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    Whilst working in Estonia some five years ago, I was very impressed that the capital city of Tallinn had comprehensive, high quality, free WiFi internet access, paid for by the city council and out of local taxes. It soon became obvious to me the benefits of this universal, ubiquitous, and un-metered facility. It also led to any number of novel services that worked for the common good.

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.


    I think like a lot of people here, you are confused by wi-fi and 2G/3G mobile data, they are totally separate networks. Typically wi-fi is provided by a ADSL router connected to a normal landline, it is nothing to do with the mobile phone network.
    Having said that, the mobile opreators are starting to provide wi-fi to help to plug the gaps in 3G data, which is costly/difficult to provide

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    itsover9000, it also seems most people also forget that on Windows when you connect to a new network, it asks whether this network is public or private, to protect you in certain ways, like the inability for others to access your files. So many people also implying that everyone who has a decent phone has free 3G internet access. My girlfriend's phone is PAYG and is expensive to use 3G

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    If you are ultra-paranoid, you could use a VPN and connect to it from the public wifi, then you will be secure! Sorry, but the security "conscious" brigade have got to me. I worry for you as you really need to learn more on the subject. Not being rude, just pointing out that you haven't got the full picture. Especially since some "security" software gives lots of "false positives" and such.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    Security posts are still bothering me. Networks can be set up easily so that users on the network are isolated from one another so other people cannot "hack" your machine. It's not like in the movies! Quite simply put; Check URL's for authenticity, ensure that you are using HTTPS, check certificates... Or even easier, use public wifi for BASIC tasks only and save the sensitive stuff for home!

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    A lot of misinformed people here. Hmmm. Where to start? Regarding security issues, I'm sorry but you do not know what you're on about. I saw a post saying that their computer gives security warnings when connecting to open wifi, well, this is the computer talking nonsense. If you are using HTTPS and check the URL properly you are more than OK. And RE the cost, it isn't as high as is being made out

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    Perfectly reasonable that you should be required to buy something to use wifi. After all it costs the venue to provide the sevice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    Continued from my last post. The main cost is the hardware. Yes data CAN be expensive but restrictions can be put in place to stop people downloading certain types of files quite easily. And re: security again, you must educate yourself more on this. Also, who says you HAVE to access your online banking etc from public wifi? You can save that for later! Accessing less sensitive material is safe!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    I've given up depending on free wifi and pid for services in hotels. Last year I bought a mifi wireless 3G dongle opay as you go and just use that. Up to 5 devices attached and works fine, so long as you remember to charge it and have a good 3G mobile signal. Way better than hotel wifi

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    Free wifi would be widely available if people would do the neighbourly thing and leave their networks open. It costs you nothing but could be invaluable to somebody who needs it.

    All sorts of reasons are given against doing this: "hackers", paedophiles, and all sorts of other bogeymen might use it. Like health and safety, the usual reaction is to block off access just in case. A shame.

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    what a load of twaddle, just whip out your BlackBerry, all your emails and all of the internet is on that, and in your own territory it's included in your price plan i.e. free.
    Of course when overseas it will cost you, just like everything else..
    BlackBerry always in pocket, laptop is excellent for a mugging or getting wet, or getting dropped, and far to cumbersome..

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    Comparing wi-fi to a street is misleading. It's not practical to have private providers offering a choice of streets: you can have one only and they enjoy a monopoly: a market failure (this is the muddle behind railway privatisation). But there is space for competition between wi-fi providers, which will drive down cost and improve service. 'Free wi-fi' hands a monopoly to the council's supplier.

  • rate this

    Comment number 181.

    Any money councils spend on free WiFi are just widening the social divide. If we are entitled to this service for free surely everyone in the country is entitled to a free device in order to access it? I would hope that any shared money is spent on social and community projects opposed to technology that encourages people to ignore the world around them in favour of gawping at a glowing screen...

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    The article somehow leaves out the world's leading free wi-fi town Tallinn.

    This page:[Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]has the entire list of wi-fi hotspots that offer the connection for free, paid for by the municipality. The page is in Estonian, but from the amount of hotspots you get the idea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    @177 Gary - I have a laptop, I have also had to seek work in the last 5 years. I had to rely on the (substandard) Library network for internet access, and not through my own laptop

    If we had a public wifi network where I live I could have used my own laptop, thus saving me time, and making it far easier to find work.

    Think about that while you are telling people to shut up and pay.

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    For as long as legislation such as the Digital Economy Act makes hotspot owners liable for the actions of the users of the hotspot, then free wifi is likely to be limited or require registration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    There are far more pressing problems in the UK than an open wi-fi service. Will a recently unemployed father or mother really care about wi--fi? Everyone has a mobile phone and so also a wi-fi connection. This is aimed at those with ipads and tablets. If you can afford one of those luxuries, buy your own connection and shut up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    170."That's why I got my iPad with 3G, costs me £2 for a day and there's almost always some level of signal even if it's only GPRS."

    Plus the extortionate cost of the iPad, of course ;)

    Well they could of needed an iPad for other reasons first not just for 3G...


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