On planes, trains and even at Greggs - 100% connectivity could be on its way. As more and more retailers and venues offer Wi-Fi, what’s not to like?
The world is increasingly connected. While you might still struggle with a signal of any sort in the remotest parts of the UK, most of us have felt the rage when our mobile signal disappears in the middle of a city, and we all know the saga of Alec Baldwin getting kicked off a plane for refusing to turn off his phone during take-off.
Although places such as Japan, Sweden and Glasgow have been boasting 3G connectivity on their underground systems for years, London is lagging behind. However, as Virgin Media (www.Virginmedia.com) announces plans to provide Wi-Fi on the London Underground in time for the Olympics and beyond, we are increasingly entering a world which is one big wireless hotspot:
- High street Wi-Fi - The array of high street shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants now offering Wi-~Fi to customers is growing by the day, with McDonalds, Starbucks, John Lewis and Greggs among the increasing list of names offering web access in their outlets
- Mile-high Wi-Fi - More and more airlines now offer passenger Wi-Fi - of course only for use when above 10,000 feet in case the planes should drop into the sea or whatever happens if you forget to switch your mobile off on take-off
- Sub-channel web surfing - Those who cannot cope with the 30-minute signal downtime as they travel through the Channel tunnel need worry no more; technology has caught up, and from July a signal will be available for the entire 23-mile journey
- London Overground stations - Public Wi-Fi hotspot operator The Cloud, a Sky (www.Sky.com) company, has announced that it will bring free wireless internet access to all 56 London Overground stations.
Although many of us would admit that we couldn't live without our beloved broadband in our lives - in fact most of us would give up coffee, chocolate and alcohol ahead of our internet connection - would achieving 100% connectivity be living the dream, or are there drawbacks?
Security fears and increased stress
Several commuter polls show that passengers are far from welcoming Wi-Fi on the tube. Half of respondents have privacy concerns about using a Wi-Fi connection on it, particularly relating to passwords being compromised.
An additional 14% were concerned about the "increased stress" of being on the internet while travelling among other issues.
Clearly there is a simple answer to both of these concerns - don't use it - but is it as simple as that?
Have Wi-Fi, MUST work
Could the 14% have a point? While fans of being able to get online any place, any time, will wonder what century the non-believers are living in, would having an internet connection available everywhere leave us with no place to go for a moment's peace?
The more connected we are, the more we are expected to be contactable and operational 24/7. People in high-pressure jobs will have the added stress of being expected to be "on" and working during their every waking moment. No more convenient "I'm going into a tunnel" excuses.
Ever used tube delays as an excuse for being late? Well now you'll be not only be able to let work know every utterance of the platform announcer, but you'll also be able to get started on work from the discomfort of an overcrowded platform as you wait for a train that isn't coming.
Have Wi-Fi, CAN work
However, there is a strong argument and support for improved connectivity. Those who take frequent business trips to Paris on Eurostar might welcome the opportunity to catch up on emails during their journey. Comprehensive Wi-Fi availability also supports an increasingly flexible approach to work, allowing you to take your office with you.
In the modern world Britain should be able to match the technological advances of other countries or risk potentially damaging its reputation as a leading business destination; as Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, recently said: "It's vital that we harness the massive opportunities stemming from the digital revolution, by creating a vibrant, world-class industry to attract investment and create jobs."
And who among us hasn't sat on a plane as the captain announces the flight will be arriving at your destination late and hasn't wished for a way to contact the poor soul who is picking you up from the airport to tell them to go for a coffee rather than scanning the arrivals gate for the next three hours? Ditto tubes and the nervous glances at watches as people realise they are going to be late and have no way to let their boss know.
More cost for the customer?
As ever though, there is the issue of expense. Given that we already pay for our home broadband connections and our mobile phone plans, is pay-as-you-go Wi-Fi just another way to get the customer to part with their cash?
Virgin Media is only planning to keep tube Wi-Fi free for the duration of the Olympics before charging for the service, and many airlines and hotel chains already charge their captive audience relatively high rates to access the internet.
However, many cafes and high street stores offer free Wi-Fi as they realise its potential for attracting paying customers.
The Cloud's Wi-Fi at London Overground stations will be free for the first 60 minutes of use - presumably no-one will be setting up their office on the platform, so that should be more than enough for most.
Where Wi-Fi goes, will mobile signals follow?
If and when Wi-Fi on the platform evolves into Wi-Fi on the tube itself, surely mobile networks won't be far behind, leading to commuting underground becoming even more unbearable as fellow passengers bellow "I'M ON THE TUBE" into the ether. As one commenter on Wi-Fi coming to tube stations noted, "As a daily user of above and below ground tracks, I know what a relief it is to travel on the stretches of line which are free of the constant babble of people on their mobile phones. I really don't want to know the details of complete strangers' lives."
We'll also be able to add bawling mobile phone addicts to the list of people everyone in the queue for the check-in desk at the airport hopes they are not going to be stuck next to on the six-hour flight to New York.
Although Ofcom, the communications regulator, approved the use of mobiles on planes flying in European airspace several years ago, few airlines have installed the technology required.
In the US, the Federal Communications Commission, the stateside equivalent of Ofcom, still has a ban on the use of mobile devices in US airspace, so perhaps we'll be spared having to listen to a one-sided conversation all the way across the Atlantic for a while yet.
You can't stop progress
While it's true the arrival of Wi-Fi and mobile connectivity on the tube, in the skies and pretty much anywhere else you might go would have its downsides, in the modern world, 24/7 connectivity is all but an inevitability, if not already reality.
However, it's worth remembering that your laptop or smartphone can always be turned off, while it won't weigh you down to take ear plugs with you each time you travel on the tube or take a flight.