I hear the government say they are going to give Internet to everyone everywhere…. But they have been saying that for decades ….
As of today, getting internet for free in public places, is far from easy. Especially if you are on the move, like me when I visit a new city for instance.
It is not too hard to set up a hotspot from your mobile so that your friend can roam though …. So what’s actually going on with the provision of the Internet on the fly?
Many cities have started offering free-for-all Wi-Fi in public places. Some corporations, such as Virgin and O2 in the UK also manage free-for-customers-only hotspots.
First Issue: Fragmented Offering
There is first the issue that a mobile user has to constantly create accounts (or, at least, log on) to connect with the various providers’ services, because no harmonised offering exists.
Take the case of Alice, who travels a lot. Say Alice lands in a foreign country and wants to get to the city center. Then she must successively log into the airport company’s Wi-Fi, the shuttle company’s Wi-Fi, the Underground’s Wi-Fi, the hotel’s Wi-Fi, the taxi company’s Wi-Fi…, having to, each time, give away her personal details and wait for a confirmation mail. Often, the resulting hassle means it is easier not to use the Internet at all.
Second Issue: Fixed Supply, Varying Demand
Second, "unfortunately the performance of Wi-Fi hotspots in crowded environments is extremely poor" (Wang et. al., 2016, p.1168). Due to the dramatic and correlated fluctuations in users’ demand, public hotspots suffer from heavy contention at peak hours.
That should not come as a surprise…. at 5 pm everyone goes home, and at 5 am everyone sleeps (hum). Problem is, the supply does not change.
A fixed supply results in what my network prof used to call high contention ratio: server delays and low goodput. It just does not work!!
I investigated some technological countermeasures to this problem in a past life. My conclusion: they have but a limited effectiveness … and indeed I am not the only one to think so.
Third Issue: If you are with O2 you are not Virgin
Commercial offerings have two extra limitations:
- one needs to be associated with the offerer to use them
- they mostly rely on home routers for creating hotspots, which is ill-fitted for mobile users.
Point 1. is an issue since market fragmentation means not everyone is a Virgin, O2, and BT customer, for instance. Indeed, being a customer of one of these companies generally implies not being a customer of the others.
Point 2. appears to be an economic necessity given the lack of incentives there is for running a free-for-customers-of-your-provider hotspot: running a Wi-Fi hotspot on a mobile device that has limited autonomy is not something the owner of this device is likely to accept without being correspondingly compensated. Pity though, cuz I love surfing while moving.
Consequence: Feast or Famine & Infamous Pricing
The consequence of all this is a "feast or famine" situation for the end users. Feast because competition between ISPs led people with an access to the Internet to enjoy super broadband (in the hundreds of Mbit/s), most often way above their actual needs. Famine because those who do not have access to the Internet, if they happen to need it, display a very inelastic demand for it. Result?
!!!!!! INFAMOUS PRICING !!!!!