Charles Arthur: The Geek

I expect to pay for my latte. Why can't it be served up with free Wi-Fi connectivity?
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The other day, I wanted to check my e-mail. So: Starbucks or Caffé Nero? No, not the quality of their coffee, but their charges for Wi-Fi access.

The other day, I wanted to check my e-mail. So: Starbucks or Caffé Nero? No, not the quality of their coffee, but their charges for Wi-Fi access.

Wi-Fi is wonderful, offering network speeds over a wireless connection. It untethers the laptop user: no cables, no fiddling with network settings (in theory), and dozens of people sharing the same connection - it's essentially a radio channel carrying data.

It's also a marvellous way for companies that make money from people pausing in their busy lives - such as in coffee shops or train stations - to make more. They can lure laptop-users in to spend time and money in these venues.

Indeed, money is the issue. Companies such as BT, T-Mobile and Broadreach Networks offer hundreds of "Wi-Fi hotspots", but they're not cheap to use. You'll pay up to £5 per hour - minimum purchase one hour - for connectivity, when all you want is to connect for a few minutes.

So you'll stand dithering between two coffee shops, each offering wireless connectivity, and then decide you don't want to spend that much. (Especially as the cup of coffee you feel obliged to buy would purchase half-an-hour's access.)

But why are prices still so high? Wi-Fi isn't new: Apple introduced it in the iBook laptop in July 1999. Windows laptops soon followed, and all modern Intel-based ones have it built in through the "Centrino" CPU. BT kicked off its Openzone hotspots in June 2002. But the cost of using them and most of the others has barely budged, and neither has the pricing model.

The only exception is Broadreach, the operator of Ready2Surf, which has experimented with "pay as you go" services and which lets you buy a £1.50 voucher for 20 minutes' connectivity.

Why, I asked the company's chief executive Magnus McEwen-King, haven't prices fallen? In the US, it's common to find outlets like coffee shops offering free Wi-Fi access. "The reason is that there are premium locations, and what we call the 'cheap and cheerful' ones," he says. "Other operators use the same price across their range, but we vary the price, depending on the location."

Train stations command a premium price, because so many millions of people pass through them, and they don't have any flexibility about going elsewhere.

The problem for consumers has been our inability to shop around. BT can generally charge what it likes because if you're in a BT Openzone area, other signals will probably not be available.

However, there may be a challenge - from, of all things, local government. Last week, Upper Street in Islington, north London, became a huge Wi-Fi hotspot, with a system covering about a mile. Islington council hasn't done this to spite BT; it wants to do things such as link up CCTV cameras and provide online access for mobile council workers. Westminster did the same thing last year.

The paid-for operators profess not to be worried. BT insists the open networks won't be secure, which will encourage business users to stick with the paid-for ones. Somehow, I doubt this. Businesses know how to make secure connections over unsecure networks. Let's just say that I think Islington's coffee shops are going to see an uptick in business.