The Free WiFi Myth

Posted on 16th Jul 2010 at 10:07 by Paul Goodhead with 42 comments

Paul Goodhead
I recently travelled back home to Burton-on-Trent to visit my family. Normally i drive but on this occasion I was making the return journey by rail. I wasn’t bothered though, I enjoy a nice long train journey and the jazzy Virgin Trains website was proudly boasting about the free WiFi that can be enjoyed on all its trains.

Awesome, I thought. My girlfriend had just recently purchased a tidy little CULV ultra-portable which I’d pinch for the day and use on the train on the way back. This would let me catch up on the day's Formula 1 highlights and maybe play some Transformice. I even thought I could take a gander at some tech news and maybe crank out a blog post on something interesting and topical. Go me and my pro-active work ethic.

All looked good when I set up camp in coach C, seat 44, my home for the next hour and a half. Unfortunately however- and some of you may already know where this tale is going - things went downhill from here.

The WiFi is indeed free, but only in the first class coach. For anyone who isn't an MP or an executive with an expense account to burn, it's £4.90 an hour. Sigh.

The Free WiFi Myth The Free Wi-Fi Myth
Owch - lucky I took a book. Click to Enlarge

I realize I should have perhaps have seen this coming: you rarely get something for nothing these days. I've also now seen that if I'd looked a little closer at the small print on the website then I would have known the restrictions.

The fact is that it's not just Virgin who have a free WiFi service with strings attached. I’ve been to a number of places that advertise free WiFi that either force you through a clunky extended sign up to a specific service or gateway, or only supply it free to a subset of their customers; a subset I never seem to be a part of.

The internet is a vital commodity and companies or services that make it freely available to their customers are providing them with something genuinely useful. It's something people are coming to expect and to rely upon.

Maybe it’s an overly utopian idea on my part of having free internet provided in public spaces - but it’s an idea that could see the light of day if London’s plan to install wireless routers in street lamps comes to fruition. I don't see why it shouldn't, it is after all something that is already in place in Paris.

The Free WiFi Myth The Free Wi-Fi Myth
Philadelphia provides free WiFi access in areas of the city via lamppost mounted routers. Click to Enlarge

I’m sure the idea is anathema to the record and music industries, which probably foresee hooded youths standing in gangs on dimly lit street corners downloading the latest blockbusters and N-Dubz albums. Surely though abuse could easily be reduced by limiting users to a fixed download limit or charging over a given threshold. After all, a 50MB limit is more than enough to send an email and check Google Maps a few times.

Some mobile users have a 3G network, but data charges can be excessive if you don’t have a data limit built into your plan. The 3G network is also prohibitively expensive for tourists or people coming to the UK for business - and yet the web's resources are often exactly what those people need to help them navigate the city. 3G isn't accessible via most laptops either and reception can be patchy outside of London and other major cities.

I’m sure there are places out there that do do genuinely free WiFi for their customers and bravo to them. There are even excelent websites such as that show you where these places are. Unfortunately I think misguided and draconian laws such as the Digital Economy Bill are likely to make such places more and more rare.

It seems obvious to me that the next important step for the internet is not to concentrate on speed, but to make it freely available in public spaces as a light use commodity. Unfortunately I think public WiFi is too good a money making opportunity for my hopes ever to be realized.

Do you pay for your WiFi in bars and on trains or have you found a nice sleepy little cafe that genuinely provides free internet? Let us know your thoughts in the forums.


Discuss in the forums Reply
xaser04 16th July 2010, 10:31 Quote
Blimey £4.90 for one hour?! On the face of it that seems extremely expensive (especially if you only want to browse the web and read a few emails).
Hustler 16th July 2010, 10:44 Quote
Look on it as punishment for voluntarilly returning to that dump known as Burton On Trent.....

With regards From a Derby forumite...:))
mclean007 16th July 2010, 10:49 Quote
Yes, Virgin Trains' WiFi service is expensive, but it isn't too bad once you're online. Contrast the GNER service which offers free WiFi throughout the train, but which is then completely overloaded, presumably by people trying to watch Formula 1 highlights and play Transformice. It becomes effectively useless for casual web browsing.

I'm in favour of a two-tier public WiFi service:

(1) a free, open service with a speed cap, per-device daily usage limit (limited by MBs transferred, not by time), and/or blocking of file-sharing sites and applications, video streaming and download sites, and other potential sources of heavy traffic (iTunes,, etc.); and

(2) a paid service which doesn't filter traffic.

The paid service could be unlimited, or could limit users by time and/or data usage and/or speed.
bumfluff 16th July 2010, 10:51 Quote
I believe that East Coast offer free wifi in all their coaches. It started off as first class only but I believe it went to the full train. However with East Coast going back to being government run it might well have changed again, there are spending cuts you know...

I think with virgin what you will have to do is sit in the seat closest to first class and connect a wifi aerial and place it on the other side of the door...
Bad_cancer 16th July 2010, 10:52 Quote
Internet explorer? Shame on you!
cjoyce1980 16th July 2010, 11:03 Quote
Originally Posted by Bad_cancer
Internet explorer? Shame on you!

get a life, a internet browser is just a browser
bumfluff 16th July 2010, 11:06 Quote
Also the number of times I have been somewhere in need of a connection, seen free wifi advertised and then tried to log on only to find it is The Cloud or BT Openworld. Those ones really annoy me.
flibblesan 16th July 2010, 11:17 Quote
I like the free wi-fi on the Red Arrow bus service between Derby and Nottingham. It's totally free and very useful :)

Where I live theres a lot of BT Openzone hotspots about but they are all chargable. Wish there was city-wide free wifi :(
hooray290 16th July 2010, 11:26 Quote
I often get a first class ticket from Lancaster to London much cheaper than a regular ticket by booking in advance, I don't pay more than £20-£40 for a ticket.
Also I remember seeing a website with a guide on how to still browse the web when you are being re-directed to one of these pay schemes. I think it was a simple as putting "?.jpg" on the end of every url you visit as they don't block pictures. A bit of hassle, but better than £4.90 an hour!
Ergath 16th July 2010, 11:26 Quote
AFAIK under EU competition regulations any free wifi is limited to 2Mbp/s. I am trying to get this idea picked up in Birmingham at present - it seems like such an obvious step to me; it's good to see others agree.
sp4nky 16th July 2010, 12:40 Quote
[QUOTE=bumfluff]I believe that East Coast offer free wifi in all their coaches. It started off as first class only but I believe it went to the full train. However with East Coast going back to being government run it might well have changed again, there are spending cuts you know...
I travelled East Coast a fortnight ago and had the good fortune to sit next to an academic who, between marking papers, kept glancing at the BBC live text on the Netherlands v Uruguay match.

I can confirm that it's totally free but the coverage is patchy, especially around Kings Cross and Hitchin. However once you get to Stevenage, it's completely fine.
mi1ez 16th July 2010, 12:55 Quote
my local pub offers genuinely free internet through the landlord's personal connection! the WEP key is even openly displayed.
Repr 16th July 2010, 13:55 Quote
in the netherlands i have to say its rather common to have free wifi in cafe's. especially in the university cities. i also know a few trains provide truly free internet without charge. however the hotspots at the railway stations and airports are insanely much work to be done
Ryu_ookami 16th July 2010, 14:00 Quote
Down near the university near where I live theres a cafe that you can sit in and you'll be able to pick up the universitys Wi-Fi which is not protected in anyway so free browsing if you ask nicely and chat to the owner or the staff they'll even let you plug in your laptop to the mains if the battery starts to go :)
reflux 16th July 2010, 14:11 Quote
My experiences with East Coast's free WiFi have proved you get what you pay for. Despite connecting to the service on many different journeys between Leeds and Peterborough with several different devices, the speed and integrity of the connection is always dire. To be honest, I'm not sure how they can even offer it as a service considering how bad it is.
Zeali 16th July 2010, 15:14 Quote
Here in Oulu, Finland we have free WiFi for everyone in city area called panOulu
I really have to say it feels strange when you travel to other citys and don't have access to WiFi 24/7 for free.
rickysio 16th July 2010, 16:00 Quote
Here in singapore, almost every mall offers free unrestricted (but of course, speed is capped at 1MBps for non paying subscribers) wifi.
bumfluff 16th July 2010, 16:25 Quote
I will agree that the East Coast wifi is pretty awful and it would probably be quicker to connect to dial up at every station but I have to say the wireless on the Virgin trains is actually rather good. Not sure if I have connected my laptop to it or not but it certainly worked well on my phone...
Faulk_Wulf 16th July 2010, 16:46 Quote
Originally Posted by cjoyce1980
Originally Posted by Bad_cancer
Internet explorer? Shame on you!

get a life, a internet browser is just a browser

And syphilis is just an STD.
ADJB 16th July 2010, 16:59 Quote
Luqa Airport (Malta International) and many of the big hotels in Malta have free open wifi. It's one of the few places where I bother to carry my netbook around for leisure use as I know I can log on almost anywhere in the tourist areas.
Lockon Stratos 16th July 2010, 17:10 Quote
Originally Posted by xaser04
Blimey £4.90 for one hour?! On the face of it that seems extremely expensive (especially if you only want to browse the web and read a few emails).

tell me about it - BTopenzone does about £5.00-5.50 for 90mins-1hr


reguarding the 'free-wifi' I have been to pubs that do exactly the same thing - they say 'free-wifi' but you still need to pay for your usage. its free in every sense as it is to connect to the 'free-wifi' but you need to pay to go anywhere else other the the hosts homepage that tells you, you must pay.

its just blatant false advertising. as for wi-fi on should be free for EVERYONE. ticket prices alone are extortionate compared to many other countries. and to top it off the trains arent even punctual and are often late or cancelled at very short notice. the service aint great but giving customers/travelers free wifi to use while in transit might not fix the problems that plague the rail companies, but at least it would be a start to show that they are indeed interested in giving customers value for money on price of the ticket instead of charging us stupid amounts to feed the companies fat cats.

there should be a voucher code printed on your rail ticket which you can use to claim an hour or unlimited free wifi.

I could argue about this all day but thats best left for another thread,
Publ!c Enemy 16th July 2010, 18:03 Quote
I travelled with GNER and they offered free wifi and it was, you had to give your email i think but that was it.
P.S i wasn't in first class:)
Phil Rhodes 16th July 2010, 18:20 Quote
The biggest problem with this is that even if you pay, or even if you sign up to one of the networks that offer multiple locations, there's so many of them that you'll pay £extortionate for a month's access then the next place you go, it'll be some other outfit. You'd end up paying hundreds of pounds a month for it if you signed up to them all.

The situation really is a complete disaster and I have never paid for wifi anywhere as a direct result.
The_Beast 16th July 2010, 18:32 Quote
If you really were in a pinch and really needed to use the internet most hotels have wifi, but they tend to be very slow.

To my own surprise most sit-down restaurants have wifi too and most are unencrypted
barrkel 16th July 2010, 21:37 Quote
To people who think you get what you pay for: it's not necessarily true. I was in Amsterdam earlier this year, at an industry conference, and a bunch of us speakers were put up in a hotel in the centre. Wifi was something like 9 EUR/day for their "unlimited premium" version.

Download rates were perhaps 50K/sec, max., more usually hovering around 10K/sec. That's what you get when you have a single 4Mbit or so connection shared among a bunch of people who actually use the net.
SkOTT 16th July 2010, 21:39 Quote
Both my local, favourite pubs have genuine free wifi.
So does my favourite coffee shop!
I'm a very lucky boy.
cyrilthefish 16th July 2010, 22:28 Quote
Must admit the only usable 'free' WiFi i've ever found when out and about is unsecured residential connections. ;)

'free' wifi i've come across recently:
Local pub - free but secured by password. None of the staff knew said password, leaflets on the tables say to ask staff for the password
Pub whilst on holiday - claimed was free, turns out this was free only to o2 customers
Restaurant whilst on holiday - free, but needed to sign up to login, signup page was broken.

All a moot point anyway, unless repealed, clauses in the DE bill will effectively outlaw free WiFi :(
Lazarus Dark 16th July 2010, 23:28 Quote
Here in the US, the last road trip I took, we stayed at a different cheap motel every night and they all had free wifi, all you'd have to do is when you open the browser you have to accept the terms of service (never read it but probably says something about not using for this and that purpose), just click okay and your off. Actually, we tried in the parking lot before going in and one of the motels we went to it required a passcode... we went to the next motel. They lost business for that. Free wifi is a Big selling point for me to spend money at one place vs another.
mystvearn 17th July 2010, 01:33 Quote
I travel by eastcoast line From Dundee-Kings Cross. Internet on it is free though pathetic for even youtube streams, it is enough for chat and emails.
nitrous9200 17th July 2010, 04:35 Quote
Both ISPs offer access to hotspots placed in non residential areas that allow you to access them with your ISP provided email. Otherwise android 2.2 will come with built in wifi tethering which should serve my purposes well provided Verizon doesn't disable it.
Volund 17th July 2010, 04:50 Quote
Places around me in NY

- College, requires a student log-in or guest log-in (available from the helpdesk folks)
- Starbucks- free wifi 24/7, but it's creepy sitting in their parking lot at night just to read an email
- Au Bon Pain
- McDonalds
- Local PD of all places...
deathtaker27 18th July 2010, 05:57 Quote
Originally Posted by Volund
Places around me in NY

- College, requires a student log-in or guest log-in (available from the helpdesk folks)

wow security breach much?
Nature 19th July 2010, 07:09 Quote
We should all remember this when in the future being connected to the internet is mandatory...
Bad_cancer 19th July 2010, 07:52 Quote
Originally Posted by cjoyce1980
get a life, a internet browser is just a browser

Sheesh! you do realize I was joking right?
Originally Posted by Faulk_Wulf
And syphilis is just an STD.

Bob1234 19th July 2010, 09:40 Quote
The advertised free wifi only being free in first class isnt something new.

Theres a ton of adverts on TV offering various things, and not one mentions any limitations in the voice parts. They always talk as if its available to everyone.
EnglishLion 19th July 2010, 22:45 Quote
I regularly pop in to McDonalds for a coffee and a free wifi connection. I notice that burger king are now offering the same but with a few too many questions on the log on page for my liking.
On the road you can get free wifi at Roadchef and Extra services.
For me the most annoying are the far too expensive charges in hotels. You really are a captive audience there. So if staying away off work more than 1 or 2 nights I now rent a fully serviced flat instead.
Volund 19th July 2010, 22:48 Quote
Originally Posted by deathtaker27
wow security breach much?

Interested in why you think that, though I'm guessing it is from my lack of explanation. That, or you mean the police department having unsecured wifi.

Guest keys only work on 1 of the school's networks, which is not campus wide, it is only present in the admin building, student services (where people sign up for classes), and the cafeteria/theater building, which also has the meeting rooms.

Student keys work only on the student network, which is campus-wide.
Sloth 19th July 2010, 22:59 Quote
I'll admit I don't own a laptop myself, or any device capable of connecting to WiFi with the exception of my DS which I never need to connect with. As such, there may have been many places I've been to that offered free WiFi, but the only one that was advertised was at college. Unprotected for internet access, students can login to access school network. Sadly, the only hotspots are in the center of the campus to keep people from using it at home. Problem is, the building with most of my classes is right on the edge and loses all connectivity once indoors.
uz1_l0v3r 20th July 2010, 08:01 Quote
"The 3G network is also prohibitively expensive for tourists or people coming to the UK for business - and yet the web's resources are often exactly what those people need to help them navigate the city. "

I managed to find my way around Hong Kong with nothing but a Rough Guide and some common sense. The web is nice to have when you're travelling, but it's not essential for getting around and never has been.
Xir 21st July 2010, 14:46 Quote
WiFi in McDonalds here in Germany is free, but you have to give them you phonenumber so they SMS you their password.
Strangely, expensive business hotels in Germany charge extra for WiFi, but every 5$ backpacker-dig in SE-Asia offers free, open WiFi.
Then again, nobody prosecutes them for downloading and they therefore don't have to track their customers...
*brian* 24th July 2010, 10:31 Quote
There are hotels/pubs here that promote their free wifi... the issue here is that the manager of one establishment is the chairman of a community organisation that as part of its services provides a computer centre with internet access charged at £1 per half an hour (customers are allowed to hook their own laptops up to the network too). Many customers find this is a reasonable charge and a bargain if they're only on for 30 mins... but why pay for something when you could get access for free?
barney cobb 20th July 2011, 16:29 Quote
Just discovered that you get free 15 mins in standard class on Virgin, although not advertised as such? Just go through the payment process but when you get to the actual payment page you are already online so no need to pay!

If you timeout just repeat the process.

Nice one Virgin!
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