A World-Class London Needs Free, Fast Broadband

England’s capital has it all, but suffers from connectivity issues

Since the 2012 Olympics and Royal Wedding threw an even more glaring spotlight on London, it seems this is the city where everyone wants to be. The local economy continues to thrive and property prices are growing at amazing rates for a mature city, with some districts growing house values by 5% in the last three months of 2013 alone.  One of the world’s most popular financial, media, cultural and fashion centres, some also expect London, which attracted over 27 million visitors in 2012, to edge out Paris imminently and become the world’s leading tourist capital. It is also home to famous bars and restaurants, the world's busiest city airport system, the most famous tennis tournament and three of the world’s biggest football (soccer) teams.

But it’s not just fun stuff, the old industries, or the magnetic appeal of ‘ye olde’ royalty, heritage, castles and cathedrals that are pulling in the numbers. Technology is also rampant. 

Europe’s largest biomedical research centre, the Francis Crick Institute, is due to open here in 2015, while the home-grown Tech City hub, for startups and giants wanting some of their pixie-dust appeal, is taking on the likes of Silicon Valley for technological innovation. On the occasion of its third anniversary recently, the government-backed venture said the digital sector accounted for about 500,000 jobs in the city. That success has attracted companies like Twitter, Facebook, Google and Pivotal to make major investments in buildings and staff in Tech City and central London. Greater London and its environs also host the EMEA headquarters of many technology giants.

London is home to about eight million people, about half of whom work there, some 350,000 in the global banking centre of the City area alone. So, why, in an age where Google is creating pervasive wireless broadband access in its modest home town of Mountain View, does a place so much in demand not have the blanket coverage of free, fast internet access afforded to Silicon Valley and so many other rival locations?

Currently, London is served by a hodgepodge of free WiFi providers offering hotspots of variable reach, quality and reliability. Contention ratios can overwhelm areas, making for unreliable access to the internet and leaving users to resort to cellular links (4G services are increasingly offered by leading carriers here even if the range of tariffs and terms and conditions are the source of much confusion).

Surely, making London a single free zone providing secure, reliable and comprehensive WiFi and other modes of internet access is vital if London is to continue attracting talented people to live and work here?

Some power-brokers have long talked a good game on this front. Mayor of London candidate Brian Paddick in 2008 said he would cut Transport for London’s advertising budget to invest in free city-wide WiFi for all.

"London is a 21st century city and as Mayor I would want to see 21st century technology accessible to all," said Paddick, a  former police officer who failed in his bid and went on to find (some) fame in reality TV show I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.

In 2010, floppy-haired current Mayor Boris Johnson promised to coat London with WiFi in time for the 2012 Olympics. While London certainly has plenty of hotspots, many of them still charge for access and coverage remains patchy because of the sheer concentration of constructions old and new, the crowded nature of the city and various hills, vales and narrow streets and old buildings that ooze charm at the same time as they present infrastructure challenges.

The Cloud has gone part way to providing this. Initially under a temporary arrangement with the Corporation of London to offer a free service during the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, the specialist WiFi provider now serves continuous unlimited broadband to workers, residents and visitors to London’s City area, a densely worker-populated space that is also known as the Square Mile (it’s actually a bit bigger). The wireless access, used mostly by finance workers and other services their businesses magnetically pull in, is delivered via equipment installed on street furniture and the company’s FastConnect app which automatically hooks up users once they’re in range of the network.

Also, Telefonica-owned mobile operator O2 has rolled out a similar scheme across the boroughs of Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea. Again, this is open to everyone: users register and are then automatically connected every time they enter an O2 zone.

Generally though, and especially for visitors, finding free internet access can seem a pursuit worthy of local detective Sherlock Holmes, with a litany of passwords, identification names and authentication rituals awaiting the uninitiated.

“It’s a first-class, A1, money-grabbing pain,” says Dave, a restaurateur who lives in Manchester but has been scouting locations for a possible venture in London. “It’s OK most of the time if you have an all-you-can-eat data package, but if you need decent WiFi then usually you’re looking at a [well-known coffee-shop chain] or somewhere, and they don’t like you hanging around after your latte has gone. Oh, and they don’t like you using their power to charge your laptop or phone.”

That’s undoubtedly true in many cases. Several people who spoke to me for this story recounted being asked to buy another cup or leave the major coffee-shop chains and the lack of available free charging points was also mentioned. That situation has led to some unusual reactions. Some phone sellers and even street stalls now charge phones in purpose-built power bars but users must pay for the pleasure. Places where there is seating, good WiFi and open sockets become jealously guarded secrets. It’s not unusual to see people working for several hours at a stretch in certain public institutions, bars and cafes. And of course, offline readers and downloads from sites such as the BBC’s wondrous iPlayer (TV and radio programmes for UK residents) help to plug the gap.

Worse luck is in store for commuters and those criss-crossing this large city where moving from east to west can take upwards of two hours. Aware of growing discontent even among Brits famed for their calmness and stiff upper lips, Transport for London (TfL) has taken several steps to keep Londoners connected while travelling in the capital. In 2012, TfL, the body responsible for most of London’s transport system, struck a deal with Virgin Media, the telecoms operator owned by British super-entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, to provide WiFi in the ticket halls, corridors and platforms of 120 London Underground (colloquially known as ‘the Tube’) stations. For some, the service is free. However, sign-up is fiddly and, once on board the trains, connectivity is a different story. Much of the line remains subterranean, blanking out coverage.

According to a comment on one site:

“By the time the WiFi has connected, I'm on the train and heading out of the station, [there’s] probably just enough time for receive my emails. Was it too complex to extend the network into the tunnels or better still add the WiFi to the Tube trains themselves? At least then we would have a solid usable service, not a patchy gimmick.”

TfL plans to have coverage on every Underground station by 2015 but if the service has the same caveats it will still be unsatisfactory.

A similar ragbag approach is common across other forms of transport. Above ground, another deal with The Cloud allows 60 minutes free internet access at 50 London overground stations. Travellers can also use free WiFi in some London taxis identified by a TfL sticker in return for watching 15 seconds of advertising. Furthermore, 40 cabs now offer super-fast 4G cellular speeds thanks to MiFi routers fitted by mobile carrier EE.

Of course, WiFi is accessible through many pubs, restaurants and cafes as well as larger establishments such as museums and hotels. However, often users must create accounts with the individual establishments then sign in whenever they enter a new hotspot. Some of this pain can be relieved by customers buying into packages by BT FON and other providers which allow them to access millions of free hotspots as part of their broadband tariff.

And what about security? Again, the lack of a comprehensive vision might be making its presence felt. A survey by Experian Consumer Services in summer 2013 found that 36% of 322 central London hotspots it researched were completely unsecure.

Things are better in the home, although London and the UK are hardly global leaders in fixed-line broadband speeds. Average consumer speeds are only the 28th fastest in the world, according to NetIndex data. Move outside London and things are even worse among commuter towns. The Guardian newspaper has reported that towns in West Sussex just 30 miles from London were declined access to fibre, despite their being located just 50 metres from cabinets. More bad news: copper cable theft is sometimes the cause of disrupted broadband connectivity.

And things don’t even get better when you leave the country. Heathrow offers just 15 minutes of free access to most travellers before charges kick in…

In theory, London should be a leader in broadband and the recent demonstration of a 1.4 terabit-per-second link shows what is possible. But for now, broadband in London remains, like parts of the city itself, an often old-fashioned and patchwork affair, bewildering to the uninitiated.


Karen Kelly is an experienced freelance writer who lives in London. She has worked as a communications consultant with many of the biggest technology companies in the world where she observed the rise of PC networks, email, videoconferencing and the World Wide Web.