I’ve recently been having a lot of work done on a property I own in Lowton, Cheshire – a village in a semi-rural area of the North-West of England.
Yesterday, the builders and decorators totally took over with dust, rubble and their own interpretations of Rock songs from Absolute Radio, and so I decided to vacate the premises and see where else I could set up my laptop and get on with some work.
Lowton isn’t too far away from the big Cities of Warrington, Manchester and Liverpool where I’d no doubt find a string of pubs and cafes offering free Wi-Fi to use.
But driving into a City can be a chore, and so thoughts turned to just how well I could work in the local area – which is mostly farms and fields but isn’t short of villages with their own pubs and cafes.
So, grabbing my laptop and a pocket full of change – I drove out undertake my experiment in finding free Wi-Fi in a rural location
Supporting Local Businesses
Firstly, Lowton and it’s surrounding areas are semi-rural but are hardly the back end of nowhere. We have as many McDonalds and Starbucks as anyone else, both of whom provide free Wi-Fi.
But we are always hearing how the big chains are killing the high-street, and being a firm believer in supporting local businesses, I discounted the chains and restricted my experiment to independent businesses.
Using FON… or not
My first thoughts turned to using FON Wi-Fi hotspots.
I have a FON Wi-Fi system (a few years ago I wrote a blog post on how to share community Wi-Fi with FON) installed at my property.
In short, FON allows you to securely offer metered public Wi-Fi to your local community off the back of your home or business Broadband. In theory, any other FON users passing your hotspot can grab some free Wi-Fi, and in return, you can use FON spots where they are offered.
Despite BT FON – an arrangement between FON and BT Broadband for their customers to create Wi-Fi hotspots – the only problem with the whole FON setup is… there aren’t that many FON users out there. And while I found a some BT FON hotspots nearby – in practice none of the hot-spots allowed me to connect and use the signal (probably due to the antennae on these Routers being primed for distribution through a building, not to the public highway).
Advertised Free Wi-Fi
Thoughts next turned to advertised Wi-Fi locations, and the UK’s biggest provider of Wi-Fi services – BT Wi-Fi.
BT Wi-Fi (formerly known as BT Openzone) offer a BT Wi-Fi hot-spot location finder but this only listed two locations within a fifteen-minute drive, and both of them big brand locations. As I’d find out later, there were actually more BT Wi-Fi hotspots than the map gave credit for, but I found them by accident.
Pounding the pavement
So, I jumped in the car and headed towards the next village along. Newton-Le-Willows, birthplace of singer Rick Astley, and home to dozens of pubs and cafes. Surely I’d find somewhere to work from there, and maybe even bump into the great man Astley himself?
Sadly there was no sign of Mr. Astley, and while the high-street had plenty of cafes and pubs, none of them advertised the fact they offered Wi-Fi. I felt Rick-Rolled.
I did some discreet Wi-Fi scanning, but couldn’t find any signals – and wasn’t in the mood to walk into each location to ask if they offered Wi-Fi, so I strolled on… until I came to The Nice Sandwich Shop (that’s what it’s called, not my thoughts) which had a Free Wi-Fi Spot sign in its window. Hurrah!
Inside, I asked if the cafe offered free Wi-Fi, and the lady behind the counter said “Yes”, but couldn’t offer me any more details than that.
I sat down and found an unprotected Wi-Fi signal called “TheNiceSandwichShop”, I connected and was on-line! Briefly. The signal was intermittent and unreliable. Twenty minutes later I moved on, belly full of a very nice sausage sandwich, but still disconnected.
Why Not use 3G?
At this point, you might be asking why I couldn’t hook my laptop up to a 3G connection. The answer is – the whole area is what you might call a “not-spot” – it’s not a total black spot, but it’s an exception to find a 3G signal, rather than the rule.
My Three Mi-Fi sat in my laptop bag feeling rather impotent. Poor thing.
I pulled over here to get my bearings and noticed a decent BT Wi-Fi signal. Sure enough, I was able to connect using my BT Wi-Fi commercial subscription (which you pay for by the minute) and get on-line from the car park. It wasn’t advertised on BT’s Wi-Fi hotspot map, but it worked!
So I went into the Travellers Rest and asked behind the counter if they offered free Wi-Fi. The landlady said yes but strangely offered me her home Broadband Router Wi-Fi code. She was very trusting!
Nevertheless, the signal was strong and I grabbed some lunch while working away. It’s fair to say that I stumbled across the location purely by chance, as there was no advertising on-line or signs in the pub windows that they offered Wi-Fi.
Off to the Library
My next stop was to the local village of Culcheth where I visited Culcheth Public Library.
Due to cutbacks, the library is only open for a few hours each day (I was lucky to catch it at the right time) and doesn’t offer free Wi-Fi, but they do offer free Internet access via a number of PCs in the library.
However, for the first time that day, I was also able to get a strong 3G signal via my Three Mi-Fi dongle and so I was on-line in the quiet and friendly surroundings of the library.
I headed back to a builder-free house later that day having got plenty of work done that afternoon.
There are some lessons here, for Wi-Fi surfers, for high-street businesses and for local IT companies.
Firstly, I work out of Cafes and Pubs in City Centre’s a lot. I buy a cup of tea or a bite to eat every hour or so, can work undisturbed, and move on to the next location.
In rural pubs and cafes, as well as finding Wi-Fi hard to come by, I also found that where you do, you’re pretty much the only person in the place using a laptop. Is that because laptop users know they won’t get free Wi-Fi, or because there are no laptop users? I suspect the lack of free Wi-Fi keeps them away.
You also feel compelled to keep buying food and drink in exchange for the “free” Wi-Fi. Now, as anyone knows me will know, I’m a lad who loves his food and drink, but even I started to get a bit full after a while!
Secondly, I’m sure there were a lot more Wi-Fi hotspots for me to work from than I found. But trying to find them was like finding a needle in a haystack. I’d literally have to walk into every Cafe and Pub and ask them if they provided Wi-Fi, as there was no indication that they did so on their web-site or through posters in their windows.
High-Street stores often complain about losing business to big chain brands, but it’s my experience that people visit chains because they get a consistent experience. You visit McDonalds — they aren’t the best burgers, but they aren’t bad – and you know you’ll get Free Wi-Fi and quick service. Independent stores could learn a lot from chain brands about offering the things that shoppers want.
Thirdly, as mentioned, Lowton, Cheshire is hardly the back end of nowhere and yet I get a pretty pathetic 1.5mb down/450k up Broadband ADSL connection at my property, rarely get a reliable 3G signal anywhere in the area, and finding businesses who offer free Wi-Fi were few and far between.
If I had a business based in the area and was thinking about using Cloud Services for my IT infrastructure… I’d want to do some more research before giving up my on-site solutions.
This is the reality for a lot of businesses outside of big Cities.
The infrastructure just isn’t there for them yet, so The Cloud isn’t always a good fit.
This is hardly a piece of groundbreaking research on my part. In fact, it was s more curiosity to see how I’d cope if my home Broadband were unavailable.
I don’t for a minute believe that consumers in rural markets have any less desire to have the free Wi-Fi in pubs and cafes that City dwellers do, and, given the poor state of Mobile Broadband with spotty or intermittent 3G signals across vast rural areas, it’s actually more important.
Why don’t more rural pubs and cafes offer Wi-Fi? I think there’s probably a business opportunity here for local IT companies to help them do this in a cost-effective manner. Certainly, it’s my experience that BT Wi-Fi are not doing a good job of helping businesses understand how to do this or indeed advertise the benefits to their customers.
So, while we’re an “always on” society nowadays – and while I secretly enjoy the luxury of being disconnected in my local pub (no 3G, no Wi-Fi available) – outside of the big Cities, the UK still seems a long way from having the Internet infrastructure it deserves.