Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft

Posted on 5th February 2008

Last week, I went along to the Milton Keynes Perl Mongers social, which was also Birmingham Perl Mongers first date on their 2008 World Tour. As it was a Wetherspoon pub, while ordering a pint I asked if they had one of these 30 minutes free cards for the WiFi, which I duly got. Now the idea of having WiFi in a pub is great, but providing 30 minutes free when you order a pint is inspirational. However, not having a working WiFi is just a pain. I already have several cards from the Wetherspoon pub in Bromsgrove, when I failed to get a connection there (others had problems too, so it wasn't just me). At Milton Keynes it seems there was some drastic Java error which failed to load the landing page to allow me to login. Apparently the error had been logged, but it didn't get fixed at any point during the evening :(

Although I've only tried this at two Wetherspoon pubs, it's also a 100% failure rate. Do any of their pubs actually have a working WiFi, or is it a big ruse to get geeks into the pub? It would be a great shame if it was the latter, as this is exactly the kind of thing that pubs and cafes should be using to attract business. WiFi is relatively cheap these days and the additional business it brings is worth it. With more and more WiFi enabled devices being sold, especially phones, it wouldn't surprise me to see WiFi accessible meeting places to see an upturn in business and hopefully profits, hopefully inspiring others to follow suit.

File Under: rant / wifi


Posted on 25th September 2007

This week, 27th-30th September, BT and Intel are teaming up to promote wireless broadband coverage in Birmingham for Liberate Birmingham. There seems to be a big promotion going on with lots of giveaways and prizes, but it's really a basic marketing ploy to get you to sign up to their services. During the promotion they are advertising that you'll get one day free wifi access, but if you read the website, that's part of the standard package when you sign up at any time.

I might have been more excited about it had it been permanently free not just one day, which many other countries are moving towards, or at least a low charge (£10 per month for 4 hours access is quite steep considering that Virgin Media Broadband (Telewest as was) charge £25 per month for a 4MB unlimited link). I can understand that the initial outlay has possibly been quite significant, but charging ridculous prices is not going to get you that many long term users.

I've often wonder why some of these companies don't learn basic economics. Understanding supply and demand isn't difficult, but it would seem that people like BT are being swayed more by the numbers of their capacity, thus scared of the uptake and maybe frightened that if everybody signed up they would be so overwhelmed with the bandwidth that their network would overload and shutdown. Charging a high price for very little doesn't get you much demand, so you never reach your capacity limits.

However, charging £10 for perhaps 30 hours (roughly 1 hour per day), would seem like a much better deal for everyone. The customer thinks they getting a good deal, and the provider is getting a decent demand for the service and more importantly long term demand, because people will be more willing to stay signed up for quite some time. For that kind of deal I'd sign up, in fact I'd probably sign up for a year. But how much usage would I actually get out of it? At the moment I don't spend a lot of time in Birmingham City Centre, but when I do, had I signed up I would probably be getting to use maybe 8 hours of usage total for the month. Despite the fact I never used the other 52 hours worth, I would still feel like I got a good deal, because I would know that if ever I needed the access when I was in the city centre, it would be there. If I worked in Birmingham, I could possibly use maybe upto 20 hours just sitting waiting for my bus (longest I've waited for a 63 is two hours!).

It's all about perception. It's how banks work. The perception is that a bank will always give you your money whenever you need it, and in virtually all instances that happens. The reason being that your local bank contains enough money to pay out a reasonable amount to any customer who wanted it. If with the case of Northern Rock recently, customers suddenly flood the tellers with requests, then the reserves run out fast and those unable to get their money out panic and demand suddenly escalates. Thankfully this rarely happens.

With BT's wireless service, if they had a signup of the service for 100 users, when they know they could only cope with 80 users, the chances of all those 100 users accessing the service all at the same time is unlikely. Possible, but unlikely. Maybe when an international disaster hits there might be a flood of people trying to get access, but no-one would find it totally unexpected to struggle to get a connection at those times. During regular daily usage I would expect maybe only 40-50% of users would be using the service at peak periods (probably home time). Most people are only likely to use the service in the evening or weekends, when they're out at the pub (possibly on a quiz night) or wandering around the shops. With the increased usage of the wireless mobile phone, potentially the usage could be a little higher, but in most cases people are using their work connection on their desktop or laptop, or they're at home. I would be extremely surprised to see all the access points at 100% for connections and CPU usage at any point of the day or week.

I find it sad that UK business is still greedy to make as much money as possible out of their customers. I'm not against anyone making money from this sort of service, but I am against them making it sound like a good deal, then actually offering you very little in return. Signing you up only to find you use up your monthly allowance in the space of a few days, is not likely to get you many long term customers. With the government moving to speed up the rollout of high octane fuelled 100MBps broadband across the country, it would be nice to see some of those plans to also include the provision for cheaper wireless network services. The UK is falling behind many others around the world, and it's increasingly embarrassing to explain to non-UK geeks why you're so excited to sit in a pub and have FREE wireless access!

File Under: birmingham / commerce / rant / wifi

Wipe Out

Posted on 7th August 2007

Recently I've been looking for an alternative venue to host the Birmingham Perl Mongers social meetings. Although The Wellington is a nice pub with some excellent real ales, it doesn't have a free wifi connection. The pub itself is wired live to the internet, as the instant a pub runs dry the staff update the website, so they do have the potential to add a wireless router. However, in most of the pubs that do have wireless, they seem to be signed up to people like The Cloud.

While trawling the web looking for alternative locations, I happened across an article posted last year, that highlights two things about the wireless internet business in the UK.

First off is that the prices are way too high to be anything but greedy. One person connected to The Cloud for 24 hours would be enough to pay the bandwidth on a 4MB broadband line for a month, and at least 2 routers, with the rest covering any administration charges. Public WiFi in the UK is expensive. If a company wants to make money out of the use of a service like this, why are they charging such a high rate. Think about it. One person might pay £2.99 per 30 minute session, but you're more likely to get more than 3 if it was under £2 per hour. I also don't get why the pubs, cafes and the like don't put more effort in to promote free wifi and get people like The Cloud to charge the venue a standard fee. This fee would then be offset by attracting more people to their establishments and selling more drink and food. In this day and age there are more and more people are carrying portable wireless internet enabled devices, whether it's a laptop, mobile phone or a Nokia N800. What better way to attract them in for a quick pint or two than to allow them to do some web surfing at the bar?

The second issue is about the content people are viewing, and why some may fear being prosecuted for transmitting that kind of material. With companies like The Cloud routing all web surfing activites through central servers, internet level security companies, such as MessageLabs, are well placed to enable that peace of mind and block all inappropriate content. There is no reason for the fear, other than for the service providers to give a reason why they need your credit card information so they can track your surfing habits.

Free WiFi internet access is growing in other parts of the world, because the pubs, bars, cafes and clubs all realise the additional revenue it brings in, when punters buy their main retail items such as drink and food. The UK seems so far behind in this realisation that it's almost backward. I only know of one pub in the whole of the Birmingham borough (not just the city centre) that provides free Wifi. If it wasn't in such an odd spot, I would move the Birmingham Perl Mongers socials there ready for the next meeting.

After I started to write this piece, I've been well informed (thanks Kake), that JD Weatherspoons now have a special deal for WiFi users in their pub. Buy a pint and you get 30 minutes free wireless internet access. This is exactly the kind of thing that pubs should be offering. After all, if they're going to offer free WiFi, the least you can do is buy a pint. Though it does pose a problem for slow Guinness drinkers like myself ;) We have a social meeting tomorrow, but it's a little late to change venue, but we may well look to see whether we should decamp for next month to The Briar Rose (only a few doors down from The Wellington).

File Under: beer / birmingham / pubs / rant / wifi

On The Air

Posted on 18th April 2007

Seeing as I live in the area, this got plastered all over the local news. Two people were cautioned for using someone else's wireless network. Now I don't care for the sensationalist reporting, but the heart of the article does convey that we do require better education for home users about this. However, tradition dictates that readers and viewers only care if media scares them enough! If someone is going to put up cardboard to hide their activities, then yes they are probably doing something they shouldn't, but scaremongering that anyone with a laptop outside your house is going to be hacking your network or accessing illegal sites it just irresponsible.

If the network is routed via a broadband network, as is suggested here, as pretty much most of Redditch and South Birmingham have cable, the network owner is paying a flat fee. Additional useage from someone else incurs no extra charge. Admittedly this may be different for some other providers that charge for the bandwidth, and if the user of your network decides to download large files. In pretty much every instance, these wardrivers are not hacking your network, they are just using the transport mechanism to access the internet. While there might be some who are now considering accessing illegal sites, the traditional wardriver is more interested in standard web surfing, email checking or accessing their own servers when they are away from home.

The upshot is that situations like those which Grep found himself in and pretty much ever wardriver are now going to be seen as illegal in the public's eyes. I've used other open wireless networks, and it was extremely useful when I was looking for second-hand cars, as I could search the AutoTrader site and locate maps to figure out where to go next. My wireless network is open by choice as I don't live somewhere where you can just casually drive-by anyway, and it's convenient when anybody stays over for them just to connect, rather than mess about with configuring their secure settings for wireless networking.

However, wouldn't it be much better to try and educate owners of wireless networks, to the implications of running an open wireless network, and how to do basic security? It's not difficult to secure a wireless router enough to be unavailable to the casual wardriver. If someone is dedicated enough to want to crack the router security, then there isn't much you are going to do about it anyway. Although there is an explanation on how to set up security in the user guide for probably every wireless router, it's easy to forget that many owners don't understand it and just want it to work.

Apparently this is the first case of it's kind. It's a shame it's even happened, as the encouragement for open wireless networks (such as SOWN) or wireless community projects is potentially going to suffer. If these people were doing something illegal, then fine they should accept the consequences. The sensationalism attached to the story though is largely illusory as the reporters have no idea what sites or activities these individuals were using the networks for.

The story has now gone national. One interesting point that has been noted elsewhere, is how this might effect owners of Nokia and Motorola WiMAX phones? Members of my family haven't asked yet, but I suspect I may be busy this weekend.

File Under: redditch / technology / wardriving / wifi

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