Kate Simon: Free Wi-Fi is the way to a traveller's heart

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The Independent Travel

Good news for passengers on East Midlands Trains. The rail company is the latest to offer Wi-Fi on board its services to London. From 5 September, Wi-Fi will be piloted on all East Midlands' fast trains on the London-Sheffield route and the Robin Hood service from London to Nottingham.

Jayne Moyses, sales manager for the company, promises the latest technology will be offered to passengers "using multiple mobile connections, providing passengers with the best possible service and speed".

As someone who has struggled in vain to connect to the internet via a dongle in order to make the most of the hours lost on trains, the rolling out of Wi-Fi across more rail companies is welcome. But paying for it is not.

East Midlands Trains will be offering complimentary access to the internet to all passengers during its introduction. But after that, only First Class passengers will get the service for free while other passengers will be charged £4 for up to three hours or £7.50 per day.

The company says that £2m has been invested in setting up this Wi-Fi service, money which must be recouped, and it would rather claw it back through charges to internet users than put up all fares.

East Midlands Trains is not alone in its approach. Many travel and tourism companies across the world pass on the cost of access to the internet to consumers in one or other way. When compared with the prices some hotels charge, £7.50 a day is a snip. I've paid as much as £30 per day in a hotel in the States, although even that sum is dwarfed by some of the fees paid by the growing global community who rant on this very subject daily in the blogosphere.

But why are we being charged at all? Why do some companies provide free internet access, while others make us pay? Most confusing of all, why do some hotel groups charge guests staying in one of their hotel brands but not in another?

It's purely a business decision, but those who decide to charge are misunderstanding the competitive edge that can be gained by giving their customers free access to the internet. Chris Bruce, chief executive officer of BT Openzone, believes it's up to each business to decide whether or not to charge for internet access. But he also makes the following interesting point. "A recent survey of BT Openzone's site partners found that some 84 per cent say that Wi-Fi adds value to their customer proposition, while 76 per cent believe it gives their guests another good reason to visit them rather than a competitor. There is little doubt that attracting guests with a Wi-Fi service increases the dwell time."

Why lose your guest to the nearest free Wi-Fi hot spot for a coffee when they could be logging on in their room and ordering from the hotel kitchen? Why not encourage more users on to your train with the promise that they'll be able to use dead travel time to do some valuable internet-based work for free (and make the green choice of leaving the car at home).

Charging for Wi-Fi access could soon become a burden on customers that travel and tourism companies can no longer afford.

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