Last week, we explored the practicalitie of using Wi-Fi in London. As the UK's most populous area, London was always going to play host to some of the nation's first public Internet access hotspots. But wireless is all about mobility, and its value is severely limited if you can't get an Internet connection when you're travelling. So we wanted to see how well other parts of the country are covered.
A large, multi-location survey was impractical, so we settled on one town, chosen at random but with the proviso that it had at least a few public hotspots. We settled on Oxford. A visit to a number of hotspot locator sites, such as Hotspot Hotel, showed the town had a reasonable allocation of Wi-Fi zones, from many of the major wireless ISPs.
Home to one of the UK's premier academic institutions, Oxford has a fair few out-of-town business visitors, not to mention plenty of tourists. Add to that number all the overseas students - domestic ones too - who come with a notebook of their own and a desire to work off-campus, as it were, and we figured there might also be a good chance that we'd encounter some real Wi-Fi users in the field.
Welcome Break Oxford
Our first hotspot was actually discovered by accident. Stopping for a cup of tea on the journey up to Oxford, we visit Welcome Break's motorway service station on the M40 six miles or so South-East of the town.
Inside, the Red Hen restaurant has a large ad hoarding inviting us to use the BT Openzone hotspot within. The restaurant also had a table out in front with plenty of Openzone leaflets - obviously left over from Wireless Broadband Week - and a stack of them by the till. If, like us, you hadn't known there was an active hotspot in the vicinity, you'd quickly find out that there was.
We sat down, ordered and decided to try the hotspot. Despite a very strong signal, Openzone's redirected home page was slow to load. Worse, despite filling several pages of forms in order to buy access time, our credit card was rejected. Openzone was unable to process it right away. Would we mind trying again later?
At that point, our full English breakfast showed up, and we decided we'd prefer to fill our faces than fill more forms.
The Virgin Megastore, 18-20 Cornmarket, Oxford
Broadband Networks, which operates hotspots and fixed-line Net terminals under the ReadyToSurf brand, runs access points in a number of Virgin stores throughout the UK. Oxford's installation is on the first floor, and well signposted at the entrance to the store.
Climbing the stairs, we found a couple of dozen screens and keyboards, many of which were in use, but no sign that wireless access was available. Nor was there anyone to ask. Could the hotspot location guide be incorrect? There was only one way to find out: take a seat and open up the PowerBook.
We're pleased to report that Oxford's Virgin Megastore does have a WLAN, and that it's quick. We were able to get online with the ReadyToSurf account we'd already set up. Our fellow users were clearly far more interested in their own affairs than ours, and being well away from the store's entrance, we felt reasonably secure getting our notebook out in public.
The snag is that ReadyToSurf's slimline access terminals require very little desk space, and are mounted on suitably-sized surfaces. For the notebook user, that means perching your computer uncomfortably on your knees. Worse, there's no café in the store, so you can't even enjoy a cuppa while you're working - not that there's anywhere to put one, in any case.
Starbucks, 6-7 Cornmarket
That's certainly not the case in Starbucks, just up the street from Virgin. The coffee's great and the tables are large enough to accommodate a grande latte and a PowerBook G4. Better still, there are a few notices up to tell you there's a hotspot present, and most of the tables have quick, simple guides to getting on line.
Not that we needed it. T-Mobile's hotspot offered a good signal and fast response, and was more than happy to bill our Visa £5.50 for an hour's access.
No-one else was using the hotspot, so access speeds were good. The clientele were predominantly student-types and twentysomethings, some working, others just taking a break. Seated toward the back of the café's ground floor, we felt secure and comfortable. With a clear view of the counter, we might even - at a pinch - be willing to leave our notebook to go for a refill.
The Goose on Gloucester Green, 14 Gloucester Street
Not so the Goose. One of more than a dozen pubs equipped with a hotspot by The Cloud, the Goose is a clean, modern hostelry frequented when we were there mostly by old blokes and - given the early, pre-lunch hour - the unemployed. Definitely more town than gown. Nipping to the bar might not feel so bad, but we wouldn't have wanted to pop off to the gents without taking our kit with us. One or two customers taking far too keen an interest in what we were doing.
Then again, notebooks must be something of a rarity. With no indication whatsoever that the venue is home to a hotspot, you'd have to be pretty confident to try looking for a WLAN on the off-chance. You'd have to know it was there, and be sufficiently knowledgeable about Oxford to find it and decide it was a handy (not to mention secure) location for a little wireless Internet access.
Once again, the signal strength was excellent, and logging on to the service with our pre-pay voucher was a doddle.
Caffe Nero, 14 High Street
Like Starbucks, café chain Caffe Nero has a number of Wi-Fi enabled sites. The hotspots are maintained by US WISP Surf and Sip. Unlike its rival - and very much like The Goose - Caffe Nero's Oxford café offers no indication that there's an active hotspot present.
Caffe Nero outlets tend to be compact, and the Oxford branch is no exception. It was busy too. Espresso in hand, we had to wait a moment to find a seat at a table that folk weren't constantly pushing past. It was still a tight squeeze, but we were able to get out our notebook and verify the existence of the hotspot.
Surf and Sip's £5 for an hour'z access time isn't unreasonable, but in this particular small, busy venue we decided not to take them up on the offer. At a less busy time, we might have been happy to spend more time trying it out. In any case, it was clear to see that the signal strength was good, and that page-loading was quick and responsive.
Both the smallness of the venue - we stayed on the ground floor, though to be fair there was extra seating in the basement - and its business made it feel one of the least secure venues we visited that day. Tightly crammed in behind the table, there's little we could have done quickly in the unlikely event that one of the other customers did decide to grab it.
The Chequers Inn, 31 High Street
While The Goose had offered a poor selection of beer, The Chequers - located just off the High Street, down a short passageway - had a far finer range of real ales to try - though the food served to us that lunchtime was something of a disappointment.
So was the WLAN, with a mere sliver of signal strength showing up on the gauge. It was enough - briefly - to contact The Cloud's homepage. We had a quick wander around the bar area, but the signal quickly vanished, not to reappear.
Like The Goose, The Chequers - or The Cloud - has done nothing to inform its customers that there's a hotspot there, and thus attract business for itself and its WISP partner.
On other trips, we've visited different hotspot locations and found the same problem: with the notable exception of Starbucks/T-Mobile and, following Wireless Broadband Week, BT Openzone, there seems a real reluctance to tell anyone about the availability of wireless Internet access. And even Starbucks doesn't tell you until you enter the café
ReadyToSurf might argue that it's not in the business of distinguishing between its wireless and wired links - it's into selling access, pure and simple. But that approach doesn't render it unnecessary to inform potential customers that there's a hotspot present.
Looking at some of the host organisation's web sites, such as Starbucks and Caffe Nero, there's also no indication that one of the facilities that their outlets offers is wireless Internet access.
Our survey suggests that Wi-Fi is out there and isn't simply a major metropolitan phenomenon; but it's hard to see it growing as a business - either as a money-spinner in its own right, or simply as a way to encourage customers to buy more lattes - if the services are not promoted. We're not talking major marketing spend here - just a simple notice in the window would suffice.
In only one instance did we have problems talking to the WLAN, so we're confident that where there is infrastructure, users will not generally experience problems connecting to the Internet. Assuming, of course, that they even know it's possible. Many locations are comfortable, and as safe and secure as a public place is likely to be.
One day, Wi-Fi may be sufficiently ubiquitous for WISPs to assume that their customers will take WLAN coverage for granted. For now that assumption is unfounded, and it's time to start reaching out to potential customers rather than lazily waiting for them to come to you. ®