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Reg road tests the Wi-Fi pub

Ale + internet = recipe for success?

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The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

The battle-hardened hacks at El Reg need little encouragement to partake of a foaming pint of ale, so it was with much cheering that we recently reported on Kent brewer Shepherd Neame's decision to kit out some of its hostelries with Wi-Fi hotspots.

The Sun pub, FavershamAmong the pubs slated for connection was The Sun in Faversham, Kent (pictured left) - and engineers duly hooked up the kit last Thursday, giving the medieval market town the distinction of two boozers where customers can bathe in the warm hotspot glow. The other WLAN inn in the town is The Railway, but we chose The Sun as the location from which we could answer the big Wi-Fi pub question: is it actually possible to file a complete story from the public bar before the effects of Shepherd Neame's Spitfire ale kick in? A daunting challenge.

The Sun's 1Mbps Wi-Fi set-up is provided by Telabria. An hour will set you back £2.99, but you can get a whole day for a tenner - pretty good value for the roving reporter. For the regular user, £24.99 a month gives you unlimited access to all Shepherd Neame's wireless pubs. The Sun has not exactly been stampeded by suits bearing Centrino-powered laptops: we were the first customers to connect to the network - a nervous moment for bar manager Mark Shaxted who confessed to being a Reg reader and therefore fully aware of our penchant for the word "titsup".

In the event, the initiation process was painless, and duly celebrated with the first pint. Connection speed seemed snappy enough, with the occasional and brief attack of idleness slowing the surfing experience to a crawl. No real cause for complaint, though.

In fact, the only disconcerting part of the pub Wi-Fi experience was the tendency for locals to shake their heads sadly at the sight of a full-blown dotcom yuppie occupying a corner table with his Sony Vaio - space which they clearly thought would be better used if it were piled high with beer and ploughman's lunches.

And there's the rub - who is the Wi-Fi pub aimed at and is it really a practical place to get down to some online chores? Mark Shaxted says "it's to reflect the changing need of business customers in an increasingly technological market. Does that make any sense?"

Ale + internet = recipe for success?

We had to confess that it didn't make much sense - but then we were up to our third pint at the time. Mark admitted that this was the "corporate line". Regarding whether the bar was a practical place to graft, he said: "From my point of view yes, because I have to." Mark uses the WLAN in the bar through choice, rather than in his office, and says that most travelling businessmen - faced with sitting in a hotel room trawling miserably through their emails - would choose to come and sit in the bar.

It's a fair point. And would the locals get used to the sight of high-powered executives power-lunching with their laptops? Yes, said Mark, in the same way as people got used to the ubiquitous mobe: "It's actually the same as mobile phones, it's an extension of that," he noted.

At this point we were joined by Shepherd Neame tied trade operations manager Nigel Bunting. He explained that the Wi-Fi initiative started at the Chequers Inn, Doddington, where the wireless broadband access was rolled out to the entire village.

So sucessful did this prove that Shepherd Neame decided to expand the programme to 62 of its managed pubs. The brewer reckons it will be a good revenue generator. According to Nigel, it gives pubs the "opportunity to gain extra revenue during quieter trading periods, ie mid morning and mid-afternoon". He added that Telabria runs the entire back-end and billing side of the service - a good move since Shepherd Neame does not want to get involved with the nitty-gritty of running an internet operation.

We asked Nigel how the roll-out has gone down with the drinking public. "It's early days. The initial reaction is very favourably received," he insisted. When pressed as to whether the laptop would become the new mobe as a major cause of punter irritation, Nigel said simply: "A computer does not have a ringtone."

Quite so. We'll drink to that. ®

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