Thursday August 17, 2006
"Hang on, I'll write it down for you." The woman serving at The Oxford Pasty Cafe in the middle of the city's covered market disappears into the small kitchen off to the side and comes back with the torn corner of a pasty wrapper on which she has written in red pen: "OPC 25 155 866."
As unlikely as it seems, this slip of paper represents a revolution in communications. It is a username and password and it provides 24 hours of high-speed internet access. But most importantly it was handed over for free with an "Oxford Blue" cornish pasty and a can of Coke.
Outside the shop, a folding blackboard offers free tea or coffee with any cake bought before midday and after 3pm, and the one next to it: "Free Wi-Fi internet available all day, every day." Both serve the same purpose, to attract customers, but the latter demonstrates that there is a new breed of customer out there: pasty eaters of the mobile internet generation.
It helps that Oxford is a university town, so there is an abundance of young people for whom email and net access is an essential part of life. But it isn't just students with laptops. More and more electrical goods are starting to include Wi-Fi to benefit from fast data exchange. Almost without exception, PDAs now include wireless internet technology and the next generation of mobile phones out later this year will have it as standard.
If you want to check your email, or make a free phone call using VoIP while out of the house, it is going to be internet "hotspots" that make it possible. It isn't just The Oxford Pasty Cafe that recognises it, either. The cafe owner was initially intrigued when a rival coffee shop a five-minute walk away advertised its free wireless service. Mortons on New Inn Hall Street has a different approach - you only get 30 minutes of free wireless and only if you spend £3 or more (£5 at lunchtime).
Both shops are supplied by the same company - Hotspot Solutions (www. hotspot-solutions.co.uk), based in Warwickshire, and the company has a refreshing take on wireless internet access.
Hotspot Solutions caters for everyone from big conference venues to local corner shops. The company's approach, managing director Jamie Hind tells us, is the antithesis of public hotspots in the UK, most of which charge an extortionate £6 an hour or insist on people signing a 12-month contract to get a lower rate. The company, Hind says, simply provides a managed service for a flat monthly fee. In the case of the two Oxford cafes, that is £25 a month, all-in. The price is low enough for shop owners to make a profit through new business.
But Hotspot Solutions is not the only provider interested in Oxford. One of the UK's biggest public Wi-Fi suppliers, The Cloud, hopes to roll-out a city-wide "hot zone" by the end of the summer. It has struck revenue-sharing deals with local councils across the country and will use street furniture such as lampposts to run access points covering a wide public area.
The Cloud charges a high per-hour fee but earlier this month announced a new low-cost Ultra Wi-Fi service where you get unlimited access to its 7,500 hotspots countrywide for £11.99 a month.
There is a third approach. As the UK's largest telco, BT has always charged a premium. At £6 an hour, or £25 a month on a 12-month contract, BT is the most expensive option. But it has decided to take advantage of people's increasing use of Wi-Fi to persuade them to use its other services. So if you sign up with BT for your home broadband, you now get 250 free minutes a month anywhere on its wireless network. If you are already a broadband customer you can get 500 minutes a month for just £5 - a third of the normal cost.
Whichever way you look at it, the days of widespread public net access are upon us. The only issue to be decided is how much we are willing to pay for it.