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Wi-Fi in the real world – pt. 1

Yes, it works - but is it usable?

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Wi-Fi Internet access may sound like the best thing since sliced bread, but does it yet make mobile working a reality? The Reg went wireless to find out. Here, Nico Macdonald checks out the UK capital's hotspot scene. Next week, we take a trip out of town.

During the last week of January, the joys of free Wi-Fi were offered across the country, courtesy of BT OpenZone's Wireless Broadband week. Your correspondent spent the week visiting some of the capital's OpenZone hotspots, as well as those of some of BT's competitors, and savouring the highs and lows of railway stations, burger bars and coffee shops.

A little background. I have had a Wi-Fi-equipped laptop for about three years, but its range has been somewhat restricted to my home office and the garden. The explosion of Wi-Fi Internet access across the UK had me imagining myself as a modern-day flaneur, itinerantly criss-crossing the capital, notebook in hand, observing, working and interacting.

Monday

Day one of Wireless Broadband week took me to Liverpool Street station, our finest metropolitan terminus and one of the free hotspots advertised by OpenZone. Equipped with my newly acquired Smart ID Wi-Fi detector I searched for and found a good signal. But on flipping open my laptop it turned out to be a Swisscom point. Spotting some red-jacketed folks promoting OpenZone, I asked where their own hotspot was. "We think it's in McDonald's," they replied. Of course - BT OpenZone recently completed a deal with the burger purveyor. Now the thing about McDonald's franchises is that they tend be found outside stations, unlike its competitor, Burger King, so advertising Liverpool Street as a hotspot is a little misleading.

Undeterred - and one 'Big Tasty' later - I was soon happily online. The connection was good, though OpenZone's login and status tools look as if it's fresh out of development money. Little thought seems to have gone into working environments for we wandering workers. Restaurant tables are higher than office desks, and prolonged working is uncomfortable. I know, you say, what were you doing working in McDonald's, anyway?

Tuesday

If it's Tuesday, it must be London Bridge station. Ten minutes of walking around with my Wi-Fi detector - looking like an X-Files kook - and I was no closer to locating the OpenZone hotspot. Even the adjacent McDonald's was cold. But the Starbucks opposite, served by OpenZone rival T-Mobile, was on fire. To its credit, Starbucks has 'T-Mobile HotSpot' decals on the outside of its locations, where McDonald's has a barely conspicuous plaque inside.

Hazelnut latte in hand I signed up for the T-Mobile service (my previous login seemingly having been deactivated) but sign in failed. On to tech support, who answer promptly but display the usual credulity. "Windows OS X? Which version is that?" And offer the usual trite trouble-shooting routine. Quit and re-launch your browser, restart your computer... at least they didn't tell me to clear my cache or kill my cookies. Then, mysteriously, I found I had an IP but had to log out, to save my precious minutes online (£14 for two hours over one month). "Shut down your computer," my nervous adviser suggested. Only after some cross-questioning did I discover that the system would log me out after 15 minutes of inactivity. This could have been achieved somewhat more easily.

Wednesday

Mid-week, I head for Euston. The OpenZone signal is strong within the station, and can be accessed from the food court (as can the Colubris Networks and ReadytoSurf services). Too bad the station is so ugly.

Thursday

I go off the beaten track to Costa Coffee, located beneath Citypoint Tower, at the heart of BT-land. The service is good, the tables a better height and the chairs more comfortable than in the Golden Arches. And the Italianesque decor beats Starbuck's Pacific Northwest hippy-ness. I could live with this.

Friday

Back to my usual haunt. Sandwich bar Benugo is located at the intersection of St John Street and Clerkenwell Road, home to a hundred creative types, and the unofficial Guardian canteen. It's wireless partner, Broadscape, offers both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and customers get half an hour online with each purchase, using a simple six-character login. OpenZone and the T-mobile services assign users unmemorable logins and passwords, making it even more hassle to log in again. Finding out how many minutes you have left is also tricky, but with Broadscape a convenient pop-up timer window counts down the minutes.

Despite the convenience (and cheapness) of the Benugo service, it appears to be under-used. "How many people have asked for Internet tickets?" I enquired of a member of staff.

"Four or five."

"Today?"

"No, that is the number of regular users we have."

Saturday

It's in to town to Caffé Nero in Covent Garden, served by Surf and Sip. "How do I use the Wi-Fi here?" I ask. I am met with a blank stare, and handed a few sheets of badly written instructions. Included is an internal staff memo explaining why Caffé Nero is promoting Wi-Fi. The most interesting revelation is that it is also used to connect store tills to the back office. This bodes well for a wider Wi-Fi roll-out. Not to mention making it potentially easier to crack into the coffee bar's financial systems.

Wireless Week - or weak?
My week of free and not-so-free Wi-Fi was very revealing. Locating a Wi-Fi point in the real world - and one to which you can connect - is hard work. The notorious principle of warchalking has the benefit of connecting the network with geography, but it's more a theory than a practice. There are plenty of Web databases for locating hotspots, but they aren't much use if you aren't online already. In the US cities which it covers, the PDA-based Vindigo service lists hotspots, and can be GPS-enabled. A location-based WAP service would be appropriate too. In its home territory Swisscom will SMS users their nearest hotspots, and its mobile phone customers will also be returned a password. This is a nice example of joined-up thinking, but contrasts with the service for non-Swisscom customers who have to purchase prepaid cards from scarce outlets. Whatever the best methods for finding points, roaming agreements will help ensure hotspots that can be found can also be used.

The fundamental concept most Wi-Fi service providers are missing is that computer mobility is not all about one-off access to email or the Web, but as much about always-on access, particularly for maintaining instant messaging presence. IM, and the ability to take your connection for granted, make mobility work, but people don't appear to want to pay over £5 an hour for these services. To support presence-oriented users it would be logical for Wi-Fi service providers to offer charging based on data transferred - the same way Orange, Vodafone and other mobile networks bill GPRS access. As Bluetooth becomes a standard part of the laptop spec. this is how mobile workers will maintain presence - and unless the Wi-Fi service providers get their act together they will lose this business.

There are many more issues to deal with before Wi-Fi-based mobility will be practical. As with trains and planes, having enough power sockets remains a major issue. Security is sometimes a concern, not least when you get up to go for that second 'Big Tasty'. And, of course, greater Wi-Fi coverage is needed. Converting old public phones to be Wi-Fi points seems like a pretty good strategy here.

Now it's time to go beyond our shock that this technology works at all, and get practical about how we can make it truly available and really facilitate its use. ®

Next Week: Part two - out of town

Nico Macdonald runs Spy, which offers commentary and consultancy on technology and design

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