Can I Borrow A Cup Of Wi-Fi?

2013-01-09 10.58.38 I’m on holiday. I’m flicking through Twitter and sipping a beer in a village bar. Outside, some Thai kids are playing a game on the smartphone they’ve borrowed from their Mum. Locals pop in every so often to sit down , catch up on gossip and read their emails.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Here I am – on a small island that’s nearly 50% rainforest. The roads are awful and it’s only accessible by a boat. It has no 3G. And it has better publicly available wi-fi than parts of Birmingham or Manchester. Pretty much every residence , every bar , every business. Kids with no access at home sit on the steps of neighbours to use their phones. At any one time you can pick up 2 or 3 networks – without any painful email registration.

Why doesn’t it work like this back home?

Of the last three places I visited in the UK one had no wi-fi at all, one had a pay system (criminally – £15 for 24 hours) and one offered a “30 Minutes free” service. The latter, Manchester Airport, then provide a registration procedure so user-unfriendly that you could spend 26 of your free minutes negotiating it.

If the internet is the fourth utility – why are we making it so difficult for people to get online? IMG_0395 Last week saw another report that mentioned the high number of Social Housing residents excluded from the internet. (As an aside –  I reckon every Housing Association tenant must have filled in at least 3 Digital Inclusion questionnaires in the last two years. We could have solved this ages ago if we’d used all the money for the surveys to buy people a smartphone each instead.)

Seriously – one part of the solution to exclusion is to make freely available wi-fi ubiquitous. And really easy to log on.  That is important. My Mother, and others like her who are not confident online,  will never use any service that requires registration. 

It’s time that all service providers , not just Housing Associations , realise they have a role to play in improving mobile connectivity.

Do most businesses really think of the Internet as the “fourth utility”? As important as water?

If you walked into a business and they asked you to register your email account and set up a password just so you use their tap water you would be surprised , yes? But that’s what many businesses expect us to do to get online.  And some still have no access at all. It’s becoming unacceptable.

Barclays have just announced a roll-out to all their branches.  Many of our larger supermarkets have turned their cafe area’s into Wi-Fi Zones – which can then double up as vital community hubs. But not all have embraced this – Sainsburys recently announced they were dropping their plans. Some have said this is because businesses can’t work out how they can properly monetise internet provision. But why do we feel the need to monetise access to the internet any differently to other utilities?

A new study entitled – Can I Borrow A Cup Of Wi-Fi? – looks at the emergence of a very different mobile customer. It reveals 40% percent of mobile device owners are “community” users—people who use their device in a friend’s home on regular basis. Like borrowing a cup of sugar from a neighbour – connectivity is now shareable. If a friend came to yours for dinner and asked for your Wi-Fi , you surely wouldn’t ask them for a couple of quid as contribution?

Businesses should take note before we start turning away.

In that small village in Thailand they had solved the problem of digital exclusion. It was achieved not by commissioning a report about it , but by engaging businesses , sharing resources and working together to get a solution for the community.

Sometimes it just doesn’t need to be complicated.


7 responses to “Can I Borrow A Cup Of Wi-Fi?”

  1. YES. On my last trip to London, on a fairly hi-tech Virgin Pendolino, I was really surprised that there was no free wifi. I was a captive audience, with two hours on my hands and an iPad ready to use. In the end, it cost me something ridiculous like £8 for two train journeys. It, too, was completely user-unfriendly – for reasons unknown, I couldn’t copy and paste the password so had to write it down on a scrap of paper. I’m glad I wrote it down because it kicked me out every time we went under a tunnel!

    It seems to me to be like the newspaper industry. Some big companies haven’t been forward thinking enough to embrace new technology – then come to the party way too late, trying to impose their own rules on an already vibrant sector.

    Some good news, though – my feeling is that smaller firms are recognising the value of free wifi. On that same trip to London, I had arranged to meet a friend at The Cut bar in the New Vic theatre in Southwark. I was early, because my meeting finished promptly, so I was at a loss for something to do. I bought a drink, and with my drink came a little tab with the wifi username and password. Completely free, reliable and fast.

    Some people are listening!!

    1. Paul Taylor

      Thanks Pamela – I think theres nothing worse than paying and then it’s STILL rubbish! My experience echoes yours with smaller firms. Maybe this is less about Wifi and more about great customer experience……

  2. Nice post. You’re right about Asia being ahead of the game in wifi connectivity but I’m unsure as to why the UK isn’t up to the same standard. On one hand I think its because they just haven’t got round to thinking of wifi access as a must have utility in their business but I also think a lot of this comes down to safety.

    My best friend works for a security software development company and he really really knows his stuff. He’s continually pontificates about the serious danger of sharing anything of a slightly personal nature over public wifi, I know that quite easily from going on Google and reading a guide for 20 minutes I could steal data shared in this way. I think its possible that companies know about this and it puts them off offering public wifi; could they be held legally responsible if anything happens on their property? I’m not sure on the law but regardless I can imagine people who have had their bankcard details stolen going into the shop they used to the wifi in to complain and I’m sure that would scare a lot of companies.

    1. Paul Taylor

      Really good point about safety. I can imagine this would be a sticking point for many businesses whether the threat is real or perceived. But for many I think it’s just laziness.

      1. Yeah don’t get me wrong, laziness is definitely the reason 90% of the time. That and as you mention trying to find a way to monetise it.

  3. Just a note to highlight when companies get it right – I’m on my way to Birmingham for #commscamp13 and I’m on a Cross Country train. Wifi still fairly dear £6 for 24 hours, but I was able to pay by text and had my access code emailed to me.

    1. Paul Taylor

      That’s good to hear Pamela – still a bit too expensive but at least the user experience sounds good. Enjoy #commscamp13!

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