Hot (spot) in the city - a Wi-Fi tour of London
Andrew Donoghue and Graeme Wearden
Wi-Fi hot spots are springing up around London. ZDNet UK's intrepid reporters set out to find out if the services live up to the frothy hype.
Last summer, the UK government legalised public access wireless networks running at 2.4GHz -- giving operators the freedom to run commercial Wi-Fi networks based on the popular 802.11b standard.
A year on, the UK is reportedly set to be home to more than a quarter of Europe's 4,100 hot spots. An estimated 456,000 Britons will use public wireless networks this year, rising to 1.5 million by 2005.
Stations, coffee shops, hotels and even some bars are jumping on the bandwagon -- providing patrons with wireless access via a host of different service providers, including BT Openzone, T-Mobile and Megabeam.
All this makes for sanguine reading, conjuring images of back-street London cafes transformed into go-getting Seattle-esque coffee shops, but what's the reality out in the field? How easy is it to access and pay for these networks, how reliable are they and is anyone around to help if you spill a double-decaf mocha on your new Thinkpad?
ZDNet UK set out in Michelin-like fashion to investigate the capital's hot-spot hot spots and find out if Londoners are going mad for the technology or need to wake up and smell the coffee.
Nestled on the edge of the City but firmly on the tourist trail, the Tower Thistle was our first stop (well, it is only 50 metres from the office) and a chance to hone the testing technique. There were no obvious signs alerting hotel guests to the existence of a hot spot in the hotel's ground floor cafe/bar but according to reception, "some leaflets are being printed".
Undaunted by the singular lack of any information to confirm we were in the right place, we fired up our new NEC Versa P600, a 1600MHz Pentium M notebook running Windows XP, and got to work. Expecting only to find BT Openzone, we were mildly surprised to see that the machine detected a second wireless network from service provider Inter-touch -- a hotel-specific provider based in Singapore.
Unable to work out how to access the Inter-touch service, we opted for the BT option. Firing up a browser automatically took us to the Openzone home page and it should have been a simple case of following the onscreen prompts to create an account. However, a bug in the address form kept us from proceeding. A familiarity with the nuances of error messaging allowed us to circumvent the problem -- less tech-savvy guests would have made a beeline for reception to find help.
Trouble is -- there wasn't any. The concierge became slightly baffled when asked about mobile access but finally twigged and directed us to reception where things weren't much better but we were told about the aforementioned leaflets.
As with many of the establishments we visited, the hot spot was seen as a separate service -- like a fruit machine or condom dispenser -- and nothing to do with the establishment. So unless the person behind serving coffee happens to be a part-time IT student, you're going to have to sort out any problems or queries yourself or phone the service provider.
The next stage was payment. Encouragingly, given the security issues around wireless, a secure connection was created when time came to enter a credit card number. The payment options were £6 for 60 minutes, £15 for unlimited 24-hour access or various monthly subscription plans. The 60 minutes can be used in any Openzone hot spot so you can save unused minutes to use elsewhere.
The final part of the test involved using ZDNet UK's broadband speed test feature to check the speed of the connection. It revealed the network running at a healthy 2Mbps -- all of which we had access to as no else in the vicinity was using so much as a mobile.