Friday, April 3, 2009

Goat Carter - can Lord Carter bring free, simple wifi to the great British greasy spoon?

These happy goats in Argentina are on an isolated farm about 50 miles from Salta. The Santa Anita goat farm has a little cafe and is in the middle of nowhere on the route to the fabulous Calchaqui Valleys. The goats look happy in part because they have free wifi, so does anyone who stops off there for a cup of tea or some cheese. Like dozens of simple cafes and restaurants I visted in Argentina the cafe probably plugged in a simple wirelss router to its Telfonica Argentina broadband and provides the wifi key to his visitors.

In Britain it is a rarity for an independent cafe to do this. If you want casual, simple access to wifi to check an email, using your bargain netbook or phone then the outlook in Britain's cities is poor. Even London's West End is a free broadband desert. To my mind in a successful knowledge society, bandwidth should be plentiful enough to give some away around the edges. When you speak to foreign visitors or travel a lot outside Europe it is clear that Britain has an uncompetitive position in casual, easy, free broadband access in cafes, hotels or popular public spaces. The contrast with the USA is stark, but also with far less devleoped nations like Argentina. This seems bad for a knowledge society.

But why do so few independent cafes and hardly any of the the great British greasy spoons have free wifi for their customers? It should be there like salt, sugar, ketchup and brown sauce on the table.

The economics should be straightforward - the greasy spoon's bandwidth isn't constantly being used, the cafe owner will often pay a flat tariff so why shouldn't s/he give away bandwidth at marginal cost (ie zero) to his customers? If you want quick and simple access over a coffee or in a public space it should be free. But if you want to start filesharing video say, then you should pay for it. And public authorities should not be leading in this provision - the private service sector should be there providing this trivial service to its customers on the premesis.

In major cities there are paid for wifi services provided by say The Cloud and or BT Openzone. But they are expensive and erratic in coverage, despite their PR. This reflects a simple cost equation - it is expensive to roll a city wide network and not many people use it, compared to say a mobile phone network. Pret and Mcdonalds are belatedly starting to roll free wifi for customers but they are big corporates and indeed you have to ask why they didn't do this years ago. You can get a 3G dongle, but again it isn't cheap and requires some forethought.

The roots of this must go back to the bad old days of broadband in the UK. When broadband was in short supply in 2001ish, a rather paranoid BT was worried it would lose customers to folk sharing their broadband connection with neighbouring homes and businesses. The small print in the standard BT broadband contracts (that were resold by third parties like Tiscali etc) prohibited you from reselling or sharing your connection. A lot of campaigners were unhappy about this, but the contracts persisted for years. From a regulatory perspective, the micro economics of this seem suspect to me given what was then BT wholesale's position in the market. Only in the last few weeks has BT come out with an notionally free hotspot product for businesses to provide to their customers although still attached to the Openzone kit.

Now that almost every business that wants it can have broadband why can't the big telcos let go a little around the edges and create permissive sharing standard terms for SME and domestic broadband contracts? Indeed 'share it' is the best answer to the puzzling question of what to do with your very own 50MB connection.

So for Lord Carter is there an opportunity to bring broadband to the greasy spoon? Can the Carter work bring about a culture change amongst the telcos to encourage free wifi in cafes? If goats in Argentina have free cafe wifi, in a developing country with a rolling economic crisis, then why doesn't my greasy spoon? There must be over 100,000 small cafes in Britain - imagine bringing simple free wifi to that many high street outlets - it would palpably change the feel of our knowledge society.

I'd love to know the real answer to all this. Is this something OFCOM has looked at? Is Carter working on it ? Let me know in the comments (moderated - no abuse, rudeness, swearing pls).

Disclaimer - this piece is written in a purely personal capacity (after the theft of my 3G mobile force me to explore the high street wifi scene) and does not reflect the views of any organsiation I may have worked for.


  1. Great idea! I think it is something that could and should happen in digital britain, but the danger I see is that if the cafe owner gave free access, and then some joker downloaded large files then the owner would have high data charges to pay or may get capped or throttled, as many ISPs do these days. It also adds to the contention on many lines which are usually saturated to start with. I suppose in cities with fibre it won't be an issue, but in many places open access may cause problems. There are also security issues if the cafe owner's main computer is on the same network. Needs a dose of thinking about but what a great idea.

  2. Great post. Firstly take a look at a pic I snapped from a rail bridge in Brum. It's a wifi enabled portacabin greasy spoon.

    Secondly, here at Digital Birmingham we're planning to sponsor a cafe to do exactly what you outline above plus a bit of blogging. As usual our inspiration comes from a great post on this subject by Pete Ashton. When we find our digital cafe I'll invite you up here for a fry-up.


Would love to hear your comments, but i shall moderate out for profanity, abuse, extremism or being off topic