London's Oxford Street has Europe's greatest density of Wi-Fi hot-spots - and almost a quarter of them are openly accessible to the public. That's according to a new study that also puts the UK behind the US in terms of free wireless connectivity.
Across America 32 per cent of Wi-Fi access points offer web browsing gratis to anyone who asks, compared to only 16 per cent of those in Europe. The UK falls between the two at 24 per cent, but the trend towards giving away internet access risks undermining attempts to make users pay for it.
The numbers come from Devicescape, which has been busy war-walking European cities as a prelude to launching an international version of its Wi-Fi leaching tech. Devices with the Devicescape software installed automatically connect to any free Wi-Fi point offering decent speed, bypassing the pesky landing page to provide instant access, but only if such access points exist.
Free Wi-Fi is spreading rapidly in the UK even if some users are billed for it. AT&T customers, for example, are grateful to be able to roam onto The Cloud in the UK unaware that almost all The Cloud's hotspots are free to use these days and thus fall into Devicescape's database. Devicescape makes much of its crowd-sourcing - dodgy connections result in a point being dropped from its database, which is built automatically when a user finds a decent free connection, though it needs seeding first which is why the company has been war-walking around Europe.
Mobile operators are keen to use Wi-Fi, but anyone who's tried to get a BT Openzone connection working with Vodafone credentials will know how cumbersome the process can be. The instant-connection standard Passpoint should make that much easier, but access points aren't expected until next year even if Apple's iOS 7 supports it now, and even then it's unlikely small retailers will get involved.
Passpoint will let one roam seamless into a Wi-Fi network, but it will also let one's operator bill the punter for Wi-Fi usage (presumably at a discounted rate) and thus financially reward the hotspot owner. Wi-Fi providers will be keen, but Devicescape reckons Passpoint will only appeal to the big chains while its network links up every coffee shop and corner store - eleven million of them in the USA.
Passpoint also identifies the user, so the operator can provide value-added services such as additional content without having to resort to a cellular connection, but that's of unknown value for the moment at least.
Devicescape will be announcing the successful seduction of a UK operator in the next week or two, providing a launch platform, while Passpoint is at least a year away from wide-scale deployment. Technically the solutions can happily co-exist, but with such divergent business models it's hard to see users embracing both. ®