The Wi-Fi Journey: public wireless hotspots vs mobile broadband
The UK's mobile networks spent billions at last year's spectrum auction to bag a share of the frequencies allocated for 4G services. But an executive at one leading hotspot provider claims this might have been a waste of money: that public Wi-Fi is so widespread and so good mobile broadband has been rendered obsolete.
It’s a bold claim, and one we couldn’t allow to go unchallenged, so together with our friends at PC Advisor we decided to put the capabilities of public Wi-Fi to the test; we spent a day in London trialing various Wi-Fi services against mobile broadband.
Check out PC Advisor's write-up or read on for our take on the event.
Wi-Fi hotspots in the UK
There’s a good chance that unless you’re wandering about the countryside a Wi-Fi connection isn’t far away. There are thousands across the UK so on the surface it seems reasonable to conclude many of us could get by on Wi-Fi alone rather than paying for mobile broadband.
What’s particularly interesting is some home broadband providers (and most mobile network operators) also offer free Wi-Fi to their customers, which is potentially a cheap and easy way to get mobile internet without a dongle.
The question is, are these Wi-Fi services easily accessible and fast enough to render mobile broadband an unnecessary expense?
Which providers offer free Wi-Fi?
Your home broadband provider or mobile network may already give you free Wi-Fi as part of your contract, and they probably have a free smartphone app to help track down a hotspot! Just remember that you'll need some mobile data connectivity to use the apps as they rely on downloading location info from Google Maps.
BSkyB owns wireless network operator The Cloud, which has been running since 2003 and oversees thousands of hotspots spread all over the UK. They’re in coffee shops and restaurants right across the country and Sky broadband customers benefit from free unlimited access. There is a Cloud smartphone app which helps locate the nearest hotspot.
BT Wi-Fi - formerly BT Openzone - boasts of being the world’s largest hotspot provider with hotspots scattered about the world as well as the uK. BT Wi-Fi is available for free to BT broadband customers. Hotspots can be found using BT Wi-Fi’s free smartphone app.
O2 used to have a partnership with The Cloud but this was dissolved after the Sky acquisition. Now O2 runs its own Wi-Fi network, however this isn’t just restricted to O2 customers and the service is free for anyone to use, you just need to register.
EE has an agreement with BT Wi-Fi that enables some customers to access BT hotspots. If this is included in your plan you can use the EE Wi-Fi app to connect or follow EE’s instructions for a manual connection without the app. EE customers can also use Virgin Media’s London underground network.
Like EE, Vodafone offers both BT Wi-Fi and Virgin Media Wi-Fi to some customers. Vodafone also provides a smartphone app to make finding and connecting to a hotspot easier.
The methodology and participants
In our world famous Road Trip feature Broadband Genie puts mobile broadband through its paces by running real-world trials to present an accurate picture of cellular data performance. We approached this task in a similar manner.
Our group hit the streets of London armed with a list of tests to be completed throughout the day. There was a ten minute window to allow some time to locate a hotspot and complete the task. These experiments were designed to replicate real-world usage, emulating the requirements of a typical on-the-go web surfer.
The networks covered were O2 Wi-Fi, BT Wi-Fi and The Cloud, and alongside this we had a Three mobile broadband dongle (winner of our 2013 Road Trip) and one wild card volunteer, who had to use any available hotspot provided they did not require direct payment (or hacking).
This wasn’t a scientific experiment by any means and our condition that each tester stick to their assigned network is artificially restrictive. In reality we would just take whatever open hotspot was nearest, but that's one reason the wild card was there, to discover if it was possible to get by without paying for, or even signing up to, a particular provider.
Also, as this was conducted in London there was generally no shortage of Wi-Fi but your experience in other places may be very different. Though given the enormous number of hotspots you should never have too much trouble even in smaller towns. Rural areas are another story but they are becoming far more common in pubs across the land.
Are you receiving?
One thing to bear in mind when hunting for a connection is the impact that antennas and the Wi-Fi chipset can have on signal strength when accessing a wireless network. Quality will vary between devices, and it's certainly possible for some laptops, smartphones and tablets to have very poor Wi-Fi hardware that greatly impedes the efficiency of the connection.
An infamous example is the Asus Transformer Prime tablet, which had such poor wireless it would fail to get full reception even when it was in the same room as the router.
If you've bought a new laptop or smartphone be sure to check its wireless performance while you're still within the return period, and send it back if doesn't appear to be up to scratch.
We found weak signal was rarely an issue in London, but once hotspots are further apart you might find it difficult to get by on a Wi-Fi link that's hovering at one or two bars of strength. Frequent travelers who regularly take advantage of hotspots may wish to invest in a Wi-Fi receiver with an extended or replaceable antenna to boost the signal.
There are inexpensive Wi-Fi dongles which feature longer aerials, and they can often be unscrewed and replaced with a Wi-Fi booster that can provide a huge improvement to reception. A good antenna will not only give better signal on nearby networks but also allow you to pick up networks from much farther away.
Task one: Download a book at the British Library
We kicked things off outside the British Library. To begin, everyone had to find a connection, search for Project Gutenberg and download Gulliver’s Travels as an EPUB (with images) file.
The O2 volunteer, clearly once a Boy Scout, was prepared with an O2 Wi-Fi login ready to go and the free smartphone app which helps track down a hotspot. In this busy part of the city it was easy to find O2 in a nearby coffee shop, but it was a lengthy and difficult process to get online. Our tester connected to the hotspot without issue but had to go through an activation process involving a code being sent to the phone. By the time the laptop was connected they had run out of time. No merit badge earned here.
BT Wi-Fi had a similar, but more successful, outcome. Our BT tester hadn’t yet registered and wasted precious minutes on that, but then going through the sign-up process under time pressure is a valuable test. Our man on BT thought the process could be more streamlined, and they weren't keen on the amount of personal info required. However, once signed up they found and downloaded the book quickly and easily in a nearby hotel lobby.
For The Cloud things looked straightforward enough as the smartphone app revealed several hotspots close by, including three just over the road. However, an initial attempt in a Pret A Manger was unsuccessful as the connection was saturated by the lunchtime rush. After suffering repeated page load errors our brave explorer moved next door to a Pizza Express and managed to quickly download the ebook while standing outside.
Also freeloading at Pizza Express was the wild card, whose initial choice of a Starbucks was foiled when the overloaded connection refused to move past a branded welcome screen. The conclusion: a restaurant is the best option for free Wi-Fi at lunch as paying customers are too busy scoffing pizza to be browsing Facebook. The downside is you have to stand outside looking a bit shifty.
The smug 3G volunteer didn’t even have to move from the starting point, having instantly locked onto a signal and completed the task in minutes.
Task two: Get connected on the tube
Next we had to get a connection at King’s Cross tube station and use the journey planner to navigate a route to St Paul’s. A quick and easy task...assuming you can get online.
Unsurprisingly there was no 3G signal down there so the Three dongle was out of luck, but could we get Wi-Fi?
The Cloud and BT testers were stuck without any options, but more success was had with O2. It has (along with EE and Vodafone) an agreement with Virgin Media to allow mobile customers access to its underground Wi-Fi. After signing in to Virgin Wi-Fi with an O2 login the route was quickly mapped out. Easy.
The wildcard got halfway there. They also possessed an O2 login so didn’t have to pay anything (anybody can stump up £2 for a day’s access) but the service wanted to confirm activation via text message...which wasn’t received until we were above ground again.
Task three: Research the history of St. Paul’s cathedral
Starting on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral everyone had to track down a connection and search for a relevant story on the BBC web site - “How St Paul’s Cathedral survived the Blitz” - and then save the main image to their desktop.
Having emerged from the tube the Three dongle was online right away and had it all wrapped up in a few minutes.
The O2 tester was also done quickly, hooking up to a hotspot located in a nearby sushi joint without having to move. It took just a couple of minutes to find the article and download the image. The wild card found similar success on the same hotspot, but also had a choice of four other open connections in the vicinity.
Less success was had with BT and The Cloud. There was a BT Openzone hotspot in Starbucks right across the street but it was so busy that they couldn’t get any further than the BBC homepage. Upon restarting they couldn’t even reconnect to the Wi-Fi, and eventually ran out of time having never discovered how St Paul’s survived the Blitz.
The Cloud tester encountered other obstacles. While a link was available on the steps of St Paul’s it kept forwarding to a strange login page which wouldn’t accept a Sky ID. Switching to Firefox resolved this issue, but then they were faced with The Cloud device registration screen (you can only register a limited number of devices per account at any time) which refused to progress. The task was finished with moments to spare after switching to a pre-registered smartphone which instantly latched on to the Wi-Fi.
Task four: Discover what’s happening at the Tate Modern
After a short walk across a wobbly bridge we reconvened outside the Tate Modern following a brief interlude to check out the Turbine Hall. This was another seemingly straightforward test: jump online, access the Tate Modern site and navigate to the What’s On page.
O2 had no issues here as the tester found a hotspot in a nearby pub using the smartphone app. It was just a few minutes walk away and the laptop got itself online before the drinks were in. The connection here was rapid and the Tate page was up in seconds.
BT was trickier. Standing outside the Tate they seemed to have hit the jackpot with several BT different BT networks showing up with different names: BT Wi-Fi, BT Wi-Fi with Fon, BT Openzone. After connecting they got to a login page but the previously functioning username and password wasn’t accepted as it was the wrong kind of BT Wi-Fi. This was solved by popping round the corner to a Starbucks, but the variety of options was confusing.
It was still better than The Cloud, though. Our tester spent the entire time traipsing around to find some hotspots that the smartphone app insisted were close by, but never managed to get connected. Good exercise, though.
The Three dongle functioned perfectly right outside the Tate so their attempt was sewn up in no time at all. The wild card also stayed right where they were while everyone else charged off as they’d clocked that Tate had its own free Wi-Fi, but the smile was wiped off their face when they couldn’t actually get it to connect, despite the strong signal.
How to stay safe on public Wi-Fi
Public Wi-Fi hotspots can be convenient but you must consider the security implications. When connected to a public link your activities can be visible to both the connection owner and other users on the network.
Unsecured communications over a Wi-Fi network are easily intercepted using freely available applications which require very little knowledge to operate; it can even be done with a smartphone. Data sent in the clear can be captured, including usernames and passwords, and it’s also possible to hijack Facebook and other social media using a tool which spoofs the user’s session ID, giving access to an account without requiring the login details.
This could be particularly dangerous if you’re using a hotspot for business as it could expose confidential data. To increase your security on a public hotspot follow these top tips:
Whenever possible you should connect to sites using encryption as this will prevent the traffic being sniffed. Look for HTTPS and a padlock symbol in the URL bar (Chrome also highlights HTTPS to make it obvious). Never use a site which requires a login unless HTTPS is being used, otherwise your username and password can be captured. Many sites now default to HTTPS anyway, but you can also install the HTTPS Everywhere browser extension to automatically use encryption when available.
When browsing an encrypted site keep an eye on the URL bar to ensure the connection remains encrypted throughout. Some web sites may encrypt when you login but switch to standard HTTP as you navigate.
Secure your email and FTP
HTTPS will protect web mail services but if you use a desktop client like Outlook or Thunderbird to send email you must configure the client with SSL to prevent the contents of your communications being monitored. If you’re unsure how to do this contact your email provider or consult the email client documentation. The same goes for FTP - don’t use an FTP connection without enabling SSL.
Connect with a VPN
An easy way to sidestep Wi-Fi security concerns is to encrypt your entire connection with a Virtual Private Network. Once connected to a VPN all your traffic is protected by the VPN’s encrypted tunnel, preventing anyone from listening in. It’s well worth considering if you frequently use Wi-Fi hotspots.
There are numerous VPN services available, with both free and paid-for options. Our favourite freebie is TunnelBear, which gives everyone 500MB free data usage every month, offers servers in the UK and US (good for accessing US-restricted sites) and a very simple interface.
If you’re likely to be using a VPN frequently consider a subscription or pay-as-you-go service. Check out TorrentFreak’s excellent piece on VPN anonymity which examines the privacy policies of major VPN's so you can choose the most secure service.
Task five: Watch The South Bank Show outside the South Bank Centre
For the fifth test everyone had to locate a connection and view a YouTube video called ‘The South Bank Show Opening’. Easy, right? And it was for most. The Three dongle, which until now had put in such a sterling performance, gave up the ghost and couldn’t complete the video.
The O2 tester once again leeched off a YO! Sushi network and had the video streaming a minute after their laptop was out of its bag. BT Wi-Fi also proved successful, and the video streamed very quickly once they had (again) entered their login details.
The Cloud had a good strong signal right alongside everyone else, though our tester still had to tackle the device management settings. Thankfully The Cloud finally accepted this, after a couple of aborted attempts where it hung at the final stage, and the video loaded right away.
The wild card successfully used the same network, but as they’d previously logged in at a Pizza Express it remembered the connection and hooked up as soon as their laptop was awake.
Task six: Catch up on Corrie at the London Eye
All the testers missed last night’s episode of Coronation Street so we tried to catch up using public Wi-Fi. Unfortunately the packed networks in this extremely busy part of London made the task as joyful as an Eastender’s Christmas special.
The O2 and BT testers took shelter from the rain in a McDonalds in the hope of both Wi-Fi and a greasy burger. The O2 smartphone app was certain there was a hotspot here but nothing was found. BT Openzone was available, however the connection conked out just after it managed to load the Coronation Street page on ITV Player.
The Cloud app pinpointed a hotspot right outside the London Eye, and the signal was strong, but like BT Wi-Fi it seemed far too busy to do much more than load the Corrie site. The video began buffering but stopped with an error message that suggested we reload and try again.
Over at the Namco Games Centre (those still exist?) the wild card had discovered an open hotspot, but it didn’t seem keen on playing nice with ITV Player and they made little progress. Not even the 3G dongle could handle this task and lined up with the others in failing to play the vid. No Corrie for us!
Task seven: Watch the Royal Wedding at Westminster Abbey
Still suffering from Royal Wedding fever we decided to head where it all happened to watch the official video - titled ‘The Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton’ - on our laptops. In order to be counted as a win we only had to get the video to start.
O2 Wi-Fi proved its wireless prowess yet again, as the tester’s laptop connected right away and the video loaded without complaint. The wild card’s previously obtained O2 login also helped them to achieve another win. The 3G dongle was quickly on the case too, although the video playback was noticeably less smooth than the hotspots.
Not as much luck was had with BT or The Cloud. The BT smartphone app reported that the entire Parliament Square area was saturated with tasty wireless signals, yet there was no sign of it on the laptop. Nothing was available for The Cloud in the immediate vicinity, but there were clusters of hotspots not too far away.
Task eight: Snap a selfie at the National Portrait Gallery
For the penultimate task we asked all testers to record the occasion by snapping and tweeting a selfie with their smartphones just outside the National Portrait Gallery; probably not the kind of portrait they had in mind when this fine building was constructed.
Not surprisingly, the 3G tester had the easiest time of it since mobile data is designed for just these kind of shenanigans and there was ample network connectivity in this part of town. The Wi-Fi users struggled, however.
O2 was connected but the Wi-Fi wouldn’t allow them to post the photo to Twitter or browse the web, with the phone stuck at the O2 hotspot landing page. Oddly, the wild card also connected to O2 but had no problems and completed the task rapidly.
BT encountered some issues too, finding a hotspot quickly only to discover that it was very slow and took a good few minutes before the pic was posted to Twitter. With The Cloud we had the same situation as the previous test in Parliament Square: there was no connectivity where we were but seemed to be numerous spots in various bars and restaurants not too far from our location. In reality it would be trivial to walk a short distance to find a link, assuming the smartphone app was accurately pinpointing the hotspots.
Task nine: Plan a route to a hotel from Marble Arch
To round it off we hopped off the tube at Marble Arch and used Google Maps to plan a route to a hotel.
Almost everybody got this one finished very quickly with no major hitches. 3G was a little slow, but still enough to get Google Maps up and running. The O2 tester automatically latched on to a hotspot right outside the station and was quickly able to plan a route. The Cloud also picked up a decent signal from a nearby coffee shop and rapidly located the directions.
Only BT had trouble here. While they found a signal along with the rest of us it refused to function at first, and even when they did get some activity the connection was extremely slow, leaving them to finish last while the rest of us patiently waited.
The journey's over - what did we discover?
We began this journey on the back of claim from a major Wi-Fi hotspot provider that mobile data was obsolete due to the prevalence of public wireless links. How did this turn out in practice?
There is a degree of truth in that statement. During our travels we didn’t come across a single location where Wi-Fi was not available at all. Wherever we went there was always at least a couple of hotspots on offer, often one or more from every provider, so it seems that in a busy city like London you can always be fairly confident of finding a hotspot for your chosen service. And even if there wasn’t anything in our exact location it was almost always a short walk away.
Performance could be reasonably good, too. Assuming the connection was not overloaded by a huge crowd it was usually a painless way to access online services.
On the flipside all our testers found their attempts frustrated at one time or another.
Most common was the connection refusing to function even with a strong signal. Sometimes it would not allow Wi-Fi to connect at all, but it could also become saturated in busy areas by the sheer number of users. In the future when ultrafast broadband is more widely available and affordable it will be less of an issue, but right now if hotspot providers want to increase the available bandwidth either they or the host locations would have to foot the bill for a connection upgrade, and the average coffee shop isn’t going to be rushing to install fibre just so someone buying a hot drink can have slightly faster broadband.
There’s also the user experience to consider, and it’s an area some hotspot networks can improve right away. BT, for instance, has a baffling array of different Wi-Fi networks, often in the same area. The constant requirement to login was also irritating, and the smartphone app wasn’t very helpful.
O2 and The Cloud were easier - once you’d got past the device registration stage. Actually signing up for these services is easy, but registering your laptop or smartphone could be foiled by a poor connection. This is definitely something you’ll want to do ahead of time rather than attempting it on the move.
Things went smoothest for the wild card and 3G dongle. Our designated wild card - free to use any hotspot that didn’t require payment - usually had a wealth of options. O2 became a popular choice as their Wi-Fi services were all over the place, but there was often a couple more available close by. This shows you don’t actually need to pay for any hotspot network, at least in larger towns, as there’s probably no shortage of freebies.
The only location the 3G dongle really failed was the underground, which is no big surprise. However streaming video still proved a challenge and as we’ve learnt from our Road Trip over the years mobile data speeds can leave a lot to be desired. This means streaming media and big downloads are to be avoided unless you've got 4G or ultrafast 3G.
Wi-Fi hotspots vs mobile broadband: which is right for you?
We can see a certain subset of users getting by on public hotspots alone. If you only require an occasional internet service, and aren’t going to be too bothered by a busy or broken connection, then public Wi-Fi is so widespread in larger towns it’s a big money saver over a mobile broadband contract, particularly if you’re one of the many people who already has access alongside your home broadband or mobile network.
But mobile broadband, with its nationwide coverage, has a level of flexibility that public hotspots just cannot match.
We reckon a combination of Wi-Fi and mobile broadband is the way to go if you rely on internet access at all times. A trusty dongle can get you online all around the UK at a reasonable price, but you can keep costs down by opting for a lower data limit and supplementing it with public Wi-Fi whenever that’s available.
The Wi-Fi journey: the experience
What did our plucky testers think of their assigned providers?
“O2 Wi-Fi was generally good. Set-up online was easy but getting my laptop added as a second device proved a slight pain. From then on both my smartphone and laptop connected to networks when in range and the performance was great, just like being at home really. The landing page glitch was the main problem I found during the tests.
Coverage was consistently good all round London, although when not near a hotspot to automatically connect the smartphone app and mobile data is essential to find one.”
- Chris Martin
“I found I had to log in too many times, and there were too many different options: BT Wifi, BT Wifi with Fon, BT Openzone, BT Openzone Starbucks (the Starbucks option was generally best). As a pay-for customer of BT Wi-Fi it should be much simpler, I feel. Most of the hotspots seemed to be outside-only, not great on a wet windy afternoon in London but useful if you are on the hoof.
Finally, a few technical things. We weren't impressed with the apps that accompany the service - the hotspot map wasn't very good, for instance. And on a laptop it seemed as if you couldn't go back to the BT page if you'd already been there but failed to login. It would open the first time you opened the browser, but if you didn't sign in and restarted the browser the page was nowhere to be seen. In general, then, connectivity was okay but the user experience wasn't great.”
- Peter Ames
“I expected this to go a lot smoother as The Cloud boasts of thousands of hotspots around the country, but frequently it seemed that major areas were bereft of connectivity even when other networks were available. The Cloud generally was nearby, but this almost always involved walking to a cafe or restaurant. That's fine if it's not raining and you can stand outside, or get away with sitting in there while checking your email, but not many restaurants will let you take up a seat without paying for something.
The Cloud smartphone app proved useful for quickly locating hotspots and seemed generally accurate. It didn't give me any misleading information, though there was once a connection that the app didn't have listed. One oddity of The Cloud network which the app highlights is the clustering of the connections - you can walk for ages and not find anything then there will be three or four in a very small area, often in adjoining coffee shops. It would be more useful if they were spread out, though it does mean that if the place you're in is very busy you can try next door's connection.
All devices should be registered with The Cloud ahead of time as this part of the process can be painful on a busy connection. The device management screen can take a little while to load up and behaved strangely when the link was slow. Once that was done though my smartphone and laptop latched onto the hotspots without any further fuss.”
- Matt Powell
“Overall, I probably had the easiest time of all. No network is everywhere, but – in central London at least – you're usually near some kind of wireless hotspot you can get onto for free. Unless you're an O2 customer on a tube platform, and which point you're just frustrated.”
- Neil Bennett
Three mobile broadband
“We could get online on every occasion - as you'd expect in London. But it's not all perfect. streaming video was always a trial. In fact we couldn't get any of the videos to play properly. And downloading files on even a robust 3G connection can take a while. And that's before you factor in cost. Too many days like this will cost you a fortune in data. Ultimately a combination of the two is ideal.”
- Matt Egan