Rory Cellan-Jones

Whatever happened to public wi-fi?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 19 Aug 09, 16:07 GMT

What's your biggest technology disappointment? For me, it's pervasive public wi-fi.

Man using a mobile phoneOnly a few years back a whole host of commercial and community schemes were underway in the UK and elsewhere which promised to blanket towns in free - or very cheap - wireless connectivity.

But as I wander round Britain or visit the United States - I rarely find wi-fi that is both easy to use and affordable.

I'm far more likely to get on the internet on the move using either a 3G phone, or a USB mobile broadband dongle (not cheap either - but easier) and given the soaring data traffic across mobile networks, I suspect that's the same for many people.

Municipal wi-fi, which attracted a lot of interest and investment in the early part of the decade, has proved something of a "bubble" phenomenon with many projects abandoned and others failing to deliver a return for their investors.

I put my view that public wi-fi has been a huge disappointment to Dave Hughes, director of Wireless Broadband at BT Retail.

He'd come on the phone to trumpet BT's announcement that it had now built half a million wi-fi hotspots across the UK, and to set a target of hitting a million by next February.

So naturally he disagreed with my diagnosis - he felt the wi-fi revolution was marching forward.

But eventually we found some common ground. He accepted that wi-fi in the open air had its limitations - and I agreed that in hotels, cafes and airports (when you can find it - it usually offers a much better connection than 3G).

Mind you, I've still not used a wi-fi connection indoors in the UK to make a voice over internet protocol (VoIP) phone call - one of the most attractive uses of the technology - whereas I have downloaded web pages using 3G, despite the cost.

So for now wi-fi appears to have retreated from the park and headed back indoors, to cafes and public buildings. But Mr Hughes at BT isn't giving up.

He says the technology is moving forward and the demand for mobile connectivity is growing exponentially. That's obviously true - the question is which technology will triumph.

It could be Wimax - although this "wi-fi on steroids" technology is doing better in the developing world than in places like the UK.

It looks more likely to be new flavour of mobile network, whether it's called 4G or LTE (Long Term Evolution). Users won't really care, as long as they can get online anywhere at a reasonable price.

But it matters for businesses which will want to offer customers a seamless broadband experience at home and on the move. Mobile operators - already offering broadband at home - will believe that they have the most complete wireless technology offering.

BT - which doesn't have its own mobile network - will be wondering whether it's wise to keep on betting on wi-fi as its solution.


  • Comment number 1.

    Given the poor weather that we get north of the border, outdoor Wi-Fi seems a bit of a waste. Lots of city based establishments such as cafes etc offer free Wi-Fi anyway. Perhaps a simple extension of this so that the each place that offers this recieves some cash back if they extend the range by fitting a router on the outside of their premises? The only time I have ever used the net outdoors other than a quick check on the gps on my friend's smartphone is the odd sunny day when we happened to be sitting in Rottenrow Gardens outside Strathclyde Uni. There we picked up the Uni network and, because we are students, were able to log on to surf the net. However, I would rather see the money invested in the main bradband infrastructure so everyone gets much faster broadband. Despite the image of a tech savy businessman checking his e-mail in the park with a coffee in hand, this situation is mostly a myth. If the 3G infrastructure was improved to allow more users and made cheaper then that would be a more suitable method to pursue.

  • Comment number 2.

    I seem to remember a huge amount of fuss being made 1-2 years ago about free wifi being made available in the city of Leeds. Needless to say nothing ever happened, in what is supposed to be the second or third most technologically advanced city in the UK.

  • Comment number 3.

    I actually use cheap public wifi a lot where I live on the continent. the local council implemented this in public spaces and in the airport which is very convenient as I work at travel and travel regularly. Most people I know have no idea that it even exists and that for 3 eur a month you can get wifi while you are out.
    I do not think that this will become all pervasive though throughout the world. 1 reason is BT. Their charges for using the "public" wifi in the UK (especially airports and hotels) are horrendous (6 gbp for an hour, cough) so take up is likely to be slow. Also they charge per time and as mentioned in the blog we only really check a few emails, the odd page. We don't really make use the full hour. in the end it becomes easier to use a Blackberry/iphone.
    Another reason is that people simply don't carry laptops everywhere. this may sound silly but when these projects were thought up nobody had any mobile technology. Now everyone has some kind of small mobile device which uses a different network.
    last but not least, even when there is a cheap option it is always secured, which is typically difficult to connect to, requires an account, WPA codes etc..this hinders the user experience considerably. Connecting from a mobile to FB,tweat,email, requires 1-click.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    Undoubtedly. it's the high cost and silly minimum purchase that has put me off using public wi-fi (plus the tedious login process). So I was surprised recently when at Brussels airport, with O2's marvelous roaming service completely down, I booted my laptop and up popped Skype Access (I'd never heard of it before) offering to connect me to the airport wi-fi for a very reasonable per minute rate, taken from my Skype credit. I was straight online without logging in - browsing, checking e-mail, and indeed making Skype calls! This is the future of public wi-fi.

  • Comment number 6.


    My technological disappointment: is like yours...not having wide-spread HI-FI....

    =Dennis Junior=

  • Comment number 7.

    So, Rory, even though it is an MVNO on the Vodafone relaying network, BT still do own BT Mobile. That's a BT mobile network in my opinion.

  • Comment number 8.

    "What's your biggest technology disappointment? For me, it's pervasive public wi-fi."


    Ah public wi-fi where did it go?

    The same way all public things go in the UK, into private hands and then in the bin unless they can be turned into profit.

    Correct me if I'm wrong but places like South Korea, Hong Kong, and parts of Japan have public wi-fi all over the place.

    But then it's subsidised by their governments because they're internet structure isn't in the hands of greedy capitalist corporations, again I could be wrong about that.

    The closest we get to public wi-fi is a hotspot by a few providers in a local pub or restaurant (starbucks an McDs also do them as I understand it). But even then you have to pay for them in most cases, something stupid like £7 per hour.

    I was watching Channel 5s The Gadget show the other night and in South Korea they have guaranteed 1000mbit connections for less than we pay for an up to 8mbit connection! Or at least that was the gist of the segment I was watching as I understood it.

    My biggest technology disappointment is not the lack of public wi-fi but the way the internet in this country has been hijacked by capitalist corporations who see it as an easy way to make money whilst not really providing much of a service.

  • Comment number 9.

    According to this all the different technologies (3G, Mobile, Wifi) are going to combine into one particular transmitter. So I think in the future we won't be able to distinguish between any of them!

  • Comment number 10.

    The one place I really appreciate free wi-fi is on the trains. Not all services offer it yet, which is a shame but understandable, but it's made many a long and boring journey considerably more enjoyable! My metbook weighs considerably less than the pile of books I'd get through otherwise. There's a few cafes in York that offer wifi, but I can't say I've ever felt incredibly compelled to browse while I'm shopping; they're mainly used by people without internet at home, as far as I can tell.

  • Comment number 11.

    Where I live, we can't get Broadband installed, due to being at the end of the connection line, so we have to rely on our 2G/3G mobile network connections on our phones which isn't ideal, but it's better than nothing.

    If public Wi-Fi was to be made available, IMO it should be set-up in places like where I live first, so we can atleast get onto the digitial world at home, as opposed to setting it up in a build up area, where everyone is on 8mb speeds. We have to deal with 7k speed, if that at times.

    But alas, if there's no money to be made with public wi-fi, then it just won't happen.

  • Comment number 12.

    #10 - Yes, I think Wi-Fi on trains is particularly useful as well. As a regular user of FirstScotRail (or at least I was until their most recent price-hike), I found it hilarious when I read a while back that their version of implementing Wi-Fi would be to install it in stations - where your main concern is running to catch the train - rather than follow in the footsteps of other companies that were installing it on trains or along lines. It was fantastic being able to surf the internet during a recent trip to London on a National Express train, and for that reason alone, I would choose them for future trips to London. So, by providing free Wi-Fi, they have now guaranteed my custom in the future. Who says you can't make a profit by giving things away for free? If only more companies would realise this.

    Incidentally, I've been on long coach trips where a Wi-Fi connection tantalisingly appeared on my iPhone, but was not actually accessible. Perhaps I would consider putting up with their cramped spaces and lack of sufficient air-conditioning if I was able to browse the web during my journey.

  • Comment number 13.

    I am not sure how this is going to affect Twitter so its pointless.

  • Comment number 14.

    To answer the question, most disappointing technology...I am going to break from the pack and say Sky HD, good on some films but nowhere near as good as the marketing hype.

  • Comment number 15.

    @ravenmorpheus (#8)
    "Ah public wi-fi where did it go?

    The same way all public things go in the UK, into private hands and then in the bin unless they can be turned into profit."

    you hit the nail on the head there mate.
    I have a BT business broadband package seperate from my home network that i have set up for my servers (a hobby) and with the BT router you get, you also get to turn it into a public BT Openzone hotspot.

    I actually debated setting it up as such but i thought to myself "if people actually use it im pretty sure it comes out of my bandwidth allowance" and also it has no benefit to me unless i was to sell BT Openzone tickets in which case i would receive a small percentage of the profits in return.

    If BT approached me and said to me "we want to install this piece of hardware in your house/on your roof/whatever, it wouldn't cost you a penny, it wont affect your own internet connections but in return you will only receive a marginal payment to cover electric costs" that would be much more appealing to me than to let others use the internet via my own router

  • Comment number 16.

    Internet access in this country is a joke. It's so clear that the internet is going to be completely integral to the economy in the future and connecting to it should be made so simple, easy and convenient. It's completely absurd that it is being rationed out and managed by ISPs, along with speeds that are simply pathetic, when the technology already exists for there to be plenty of highspeed bandwidth for all.

    Investment in networks is only ever done if there's an immediate and definite profit.. Even when the end user is shouting for upgrades!

  • Comment number 17.

    More phone companies need to bundle WiFi access like 02 do. They also need to share access points. After all, running an access point is probably a lot cheaper than running a 3G mast!

    The WeatherSpoons pub near me has free wifi but it doesn't let you use Skype. McDonalds does - but who would want to get a laptop out there? Coffee Republic has free wifi when you buy a drink, which is fair enough. Starbucks was stunningly overpriced last time I checked, so I always avoid it.

  • Comment number 18.

    The research with users we have been conducting shows that a major reason for people not using wi-fi hotspots outside of the home is its unpredictability, namely that people are generally unable to predict beforehand that they will be able to access wi-fi hotspots when they are outside the home or office. This, contrasted with the more widespread access to mobile internet afforded by dongles, is a major driver to dongle take up. For most users, mobile b/band is the default option outside the home, with switching to wi-fi where available (if low cost or free). (Steve Smith, Coda Research Consultancy.)

  • Comment number 19.

    Most of the industry is waiting for WiMAX. WiFi speeds with mobile-phone range, and should be on stream in the next 2-3 years. Since this is likely to be a threat to even fixed line broadband, the mobile broadband and public wifi providers have pretty much waved the white flag.

    Should be quite cheap as well, althought the government is predictably trying to milk as much as possible from the licences.

  • Comment number 20.

    WiFi in San Francisco was scuttled because the city is extremely slow at implementing new projects. Dragging out the decision to go with Google or Earthlink didn't help.

    Mountain View, CA has had city-wide wifi since 2006 (thanks to google)

    However, all over the united states, telephone companies (and some ISPs) are fighting tooth and nail with local governments, and usually winning. That is the main reason there aren't more Wifi hotspots in the U.S.

  • Comment number 21.

    Rory is mistaken in describing WiMax as "WiFi on Steroids". There is nothing particularly remarkable about WiMax technology as compared to recent WiFi standards such as 802.11n. What is different is how the technology is licensed. WiFi equipment is designed for unlicensed use which means that the power output of these devices is quite low. WiFi is unlicensed but not unregulated and the regulations stipulate that the power output of WiFi devices must be low to reduce the likelihood of interference among devices. WiMax, on the other hand, is designed for licensed spectrum use which typically allows for much higher power output from the devices because the participation in licensed spectrum is controlled by the regulator. That is the real difference between WiFi and WiMax today.

    What I find remarkable about WiFi is how fast it has evolved and how powerful current devices are in spite of being very restricted in terms of power output and in spite of existing in a relatively unattractive range of the spectrum band.

    If you want to talk about wireless on steroids, rather look at the television white spaces devices due to come to the market in the next year or so. Television white spaces offers the innovation of potential of unlicensed spectrum but operates in the television spectrum bands which have much better signal propagation characteristics. Unfortunately OFCOM have taken a more conservative perspective on television white spaces than the FCC in the U.S. The key to more effective, affordable municipal wireless is more a regulatory issue than a technological one.

  • Comment number 22.

    An article in Government Technology ( - from 2007) explains how public wi-fi here in Prague ended in a stalemate:

    "Almost mirroring some of the early muni-wireless battles in the U.S., Prague's proposed citywide wireless plan is yet another case where municipal broadband has seriously clashed with incumbent telcom operators."

  • Comment number 23.

    On a holiday on Gran Canaria I also couldn't find any cheap WiFi. So me and my friend developed [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

    It automatically connects to any open network it can find. I also just got the idea that if you own an access point and would like to share it with others, append " O" (for Open) to its SSID to signal it. That way we can avoid all the debates and disputes about "stealing" other people's WiFi.

  • Comment number 24.

    I have recently come back from 3 months traveling around mainland Europe and managed to keep in touch with friends and family without paying for WiFi once. Many towns and cities have free hotspots and whilst not yet ubiquitous, cafes, bars and restaurants with hotspots are not too difficult to find.

  • Comment number 25.

    The Wi-Fi technology is a great one for developing countries because people get attracted whenever some technology is updated. But for a developed country like UK, it wont suit as of now because people got used to it and they are in the mindset to move towards the next technology. So, increasing the number of Wi-Fi spots or making Wi-Fi available in the open spaces does not make sense. The important things for a public network are availability and the speed. Unfortunately, Wi-Fi lags in both of these factors and hence the public places should have access to advanced technologies like WiMax or 3G whatever it may be. Mobile broadband is a good option but its costly. So people have to wait for its costs to come down and at that time the traffic volume for public network gets reduced and hence the speed may increase.

  • Comment number 26.

    Public WiFi has become in many cases a niche product charging high prices (with high margin) to foreign business visitors. The population of the UK has largely been ignored. Public WiFi operators charging as much for an hour of access as some mobile operators charge for a month of cellular data is clearly never going to work. However there is a new wave of WiFi operators rapidly gaining traction - free public WiFi operators. The technology and business models now exist to provide free WiFi to end users, and consumers expect it in a location the same as they expect running water.

    A very high percentage of consumers in the UK now have a WiFi enabled device. Combine this with the the mobile operators realising that 3G/4G networks will never provide enough bandwidth for devices like the iPhone and we will finally see useful public WiFi in the UK in 2010.

    the new wave of operators make it cheap for venues and free for consumers. The older, more established operators will have to follow suite or become irrelevant. The fast free WiFi happens, the faster it will become widespread. There are a little over 10k public WiFi locations in the UK. Go back a couple of years and there were nearly 15k. The market has been contracting as the existing providers become less and less relevant. 10k is not enough to be useful to consumers - they have to know they can get it in every town, they have to know its always close by. You will see 20,30 or even 40k public WiFi hotspots in the UK over the next 3 years, and they will all be free. Then public WiFi will be useful and actually deliver on its early promises from 2002.

  • Comment number 27.

    I've had my router set up to enable Fon ( users to connect for some time. Not much use in a suburban environment, but I do seem to get some passing connections.


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