Should Wi-Fi be free?

Last week I finally got a Wi-Fi hub set up at home after much huffing, puffing and a fair bit of bad language as well. Let me explain. This wasn’t just a matter of plugging a router into a telephone socket as my broadband comes through the air via a radio signal, hits an aerial, trips a light fandango down some bog standard co-ax to a Nera box and then via a Cat 5 Ethernet cable into the back of the PC.

All I wanted to do was establish a wireless router between the Nera box and the PC to push the connection through the air to my HTC Desire and netbook. To cut a long story short I finally figured out why I couldn’t access the router down the standard IP address and now I can access email etc from my smartphone in the house and spend the summer – if we get one – in the garden working on my netbook.

Having this extra Internet access is great and it got me thinking about the provision of Wi-Fi when out on the road. There seems to be a growing number of retail and service outlets that offer free Wi-Fi and talking to people it seems that most of them seem to expect to be given this if they drop in on their neighbourhood coffee shop. The provision of that Wi-Fi facility has a cost and to offer it FoC to punters means it is obviously being treated as a loss leader which is all well and good and as far as I am concerned good business practice.

But are we as customers right to expect free Wi-Fi? The fact that we have parted with some cash for a polystyrene container full of steaming wet caffeine – can we demand to download our email or watch iPlayer on their bandwidth? It seems fair to me that if I pay what I consider an extortionate amount of money to travel by train to London for the carrier to provide pond life like me in standard class with free Wi-Fi when the travellers in first class get it for even more extortionate sums of money.

What is your take on this?

Kevin Tea is a journalist and marketing communications professional who has worked for some of the leading blue chip companies in the UK and Europe. In the 1990s he became interested in how emerging Internet-based technologies could change the way that people worked and became an administrator on the Telework Europa Forum on CompuServe. With other colleagues he took part in a four year European Commission sponsored project to look at the way that the Internet could benefit remote communities. His blog is a resource for SMEs who want to use cloud computing and Web 2.0 technologies.