Chains such as Costa Coffee, McDonald’s, J D Wetherspoon and Pret A Manger already provide free Wi-Fi to all their customers, while other chains, such as Starbucks provide a limited service through its provider BT Openzone.
That’s fine if you happen to like going to those places, and have the right gadget and phone operator, but in this 24/7 ‘always online’ culture we expect to be able to get access whenever and wherever we happen to be. So O2’s recent announcement that it’s rolling out its own free Wi-Fi network nationwide looks interesting.
How O2’s service will work
The mobile operator says its service will be available to all, no matter who your mobile provider is or what type of device you have.
Venues will absorb most of the cost but it will also be funded by text-based adverts sent to your phone.
Once you’ve registered your phone and/or computer with the O2 system using a unique code, it will be able to recognise you wherever you are, providing the venue has signed up to the service. We can expect branded welcome screens and messages as we log on, but also special offers perhaps.
If your phone’s Wi-Fi network scanner is always on, this could become annoying if you’re constantly bombarded with ads every time you come into range of O2’s free network, but you can usually switch this off and save battery life in the process.
There is a downside to this that may worry parents, however. As it stands mobile network providers are obliged to block pornography and other adult services until customers can prove their age. But it seems Wi-Fi providers are not under any such obligation, potentially leaving children vulnerable to inappropriate content when they’re out and about.
Competition in the public Wi-Fi space is obviously intensifying, which is great news for customers. BSkyB bought The Cloud last month, one of the major Wi-Fi network providers, giving the broadcaster ownership of 5,000 public Wi-Fi hotspots around the UK.
Then on 1st February The Cloud announced it was offering 15 minutes free Wi-Fi access within the City of London.
Wi-Fi versus 3G
But what’s the big deal about Wi-Fi if you already have a 3G phone or a mobile broadband USB dongle for your laptop?
For starters, Wi-Fi is up to three times faster and less draining on battery life. Secondly, if you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network you can still take a call on your mobile without breaking the internet connection. Thirdly, USB dongles sometimes don’t pick up the 3G network very well and have to link to much slower cellular networks instead.
Waiting for a web page to load at modem speeds is excruciating.
O2, which currently uses BT and The Cloud to provide its public Wi-Fi service, says only 20% of its customers choose free public Wi-Fi over mobile data services because there’s so much confusion over pricing, and dissatisfaction with network speeds and reliability.
Hence its decision to go head-to-head with its former partners. The faster we move towards free public Wi-Fi for all, the better.
Wi-Fi tariffs compared
If you don’t have a Wi-Fi access deal with your mobile phone provider you can still buy access direct from the main providers BT Openzone and The Cloud.
Here’s how they compare:
You can buy a range of Wi-Fi vouchers covering various time periods from 90 to 4,000 minutes, costing £5.99 to £39 (inclusive of VAT). Regular users can opt for a 12/18 month deal from £5 to £28 a month (excluding VAT), while light users can simply pay by the minute at 18p a minute (inclusive of VAT).
Monthly subscriptions vary from £3.95 to £9.95 a month (inclusive of VAT) depending on the type and number of devices you want to connect.
How to find a Wi-Fi hotspot
There are over two million Wi-Fi hotspots in the UK currently, so it can pretty annoying settling down with your frappuccino ready to catch up on last night’s goal action on your smartphone or laptop only to discover you’re not in one.
To avoid disappointment, do some research before setting out. There are several ‘hotspot’ directories around to help you, such as MyHotspots and JiWire, as well dedicated free apps for your smartphone and iPad, such as WiFiZone@UK, Wi-Fi Finder, and Wi-Fi Fast Connect (for The Cloud customers).