The Wi-Fi rip-off and your part in its downfall

I’ve just spotted an article in The Times which covers a frequent rant of mine – the ridiculous high prices of wireless Internet access in this country and abroad.

As the author notes (discovers), the majority of Wi-Fi hotspots in the UK are run by either BT Openzone or T-Mobile and both of them charge a ludicrous £6 an hour for access. I have long complained that coffee shops, pubs, shops etc etc are stupid to accept their systems at this price and that they would benefit enormously from simply installing equipment, sticking on a wireless router and for a minimal outlay welcome a whole new series of customers.

I am certain the economics are there already, but no one else seems quite so certain.

What the article has made me realise is the reason why loads of companies aren’t simply sticking in free hotspots: fear. It’s all part of this pervasive idea that the Internet is somehow dangerous and that you have to be protected from it. Viruses, worms, child pornography, cybercrime – you’d be naive just to let people have free access to the Internet.

Except you wouldn’t of course. But then what do coffee shop owners know about Wi-Fi hotspots? And so when they have the great idea of offering Net access to their customers they look around at what everyone else is offering and then call BT or T-Mobile and ask them.

These two telco giants then turn up and sell their vastly over-priced product while outlining the dangers of not having a secure system and pointing out how much more money they will get overall with them. And so another pointlessly expensive hotspot is added to the UK’s prohibitive network.

Anyone who has spent longer than five mintes studying BT’s business approach will know that BT can probably still make a healthy profit charging £1 an hour. And T-Mobile is simply Germany’s BT. But neither of these companies will reduce their prices until they have to because of either competitive pressures or demands by the regulator Ofcom.

BT doesn’t care about how many people use its networks. Not so long as they’re not using others’. That’s not a joke either – it’s the company’s culture. Not that long ago the head of BT, an idiot called Peter Bonfield, told an audience that most people would have to go to nightschool to get access to the Internet. It would simply be too expensive for most people.

This insane prediction was wiped out only a few months later with the arrival of Freeserve’s 1p-a-minute dial-up service, and the dozens of other ISPs that suddenly appeared. Then, about a year later, I had a big argument with the husband of an old friend who worked for BT and told me that these ideas about houses having always-on Internet connections (ADSL) were mere fantasies. People simply won’t be able to afford them, he leered.

The simple fact is that free or at least, very cheap, wireless Net access is inevitable. But BT and T-Mobile are going to milk it for every last drop of profit until they are told otherwise.

The author of The Times article called up Ofcom to ask them why they weren’t doing anything about it.

“What will it take for Ofcom to pull its finger out? ‘If there was enough evidence that consumers were unhappy, we would look at it,’ said the spokesman. He claimed that it hadn’t had any complaints so far. It has now: mine. If you, too, want to stop this wireless robbery, I suggest you do likewise at”

And that is exactly what I am going to do right now. And what I would very, very strongly like to suggest that anyone that reads this article does too.

It’s not surprising that Ofcom hasn’t had many complaints because it has an online equivalent of the nightmarish phone system circles. You are forced to select a topic that doesn’t *really* fit your requirement but the lack of an alternative means you have to select the nearest. So you follow that path and you end up being told to go to someone else.

The best method may be to call Ofcom on 020 7981 3040. Otherwise, this is the best compromise I can find to Ofcom actually letting you complain online:

Click it and complain!

Incidentally, there are 77 hotspots in Oxford according to this Intel hotspot finder. None of them are free.

Here is a copy of my complaint to Ofcom. My complaint reference number is 2636233.

I would like to complain in the strongest possible terms about the cost of Wi-Fi hotspots across the UK.

The majority of hotspots in this country are currently run by BT or T-Mobile and they are using this uncompetitive market to vastly over-charge customers.

I would like Ofcom to investigate how these companies feel that £6 an hour is an appropriate fee when I have a 24-hour non-stop fast Internet access to my house for £20 *per month*.

At £6 an hour, the real cost of Net access (and just for one person) is a staggering £4,500 a month.

Both companies offer an alternative in contracts but these are also prohibitively expensive and require you to sign up for 12 months.

Put simply, these two companies are abusing their market power and the current lack of competition in the market. Their expanding presence is also have the knock-on effect of stifling competition by reducing the number of outlets that a lower-cost competitor can effectively target.

I would like Ofcom to review this system as soon as possible. The price of wireless access is artificially high in this country and currently there is nothing to prevent the situation from continuing.

Ofcom should review the situation with regard to other  Internet technologies such as ADSL where only after significant pressure did the prices of access come down, and only then did it become clear that the companies in charge of access had been purposefully overcharging customers for years.

Yours sincerely

Kieren McCarthy