Curated Spot Check: London, UK

Posted on September 9, 2013

Devicescape’s Curated Spot Check team recently visited London and the surrounding areas to perform an on-the-ground Wi-Fi assessment and incorporate the results into our local Curation process. As one of the world’s best cities, London leads in many areas, including Wi-Fi diversity and density.  Here are some of the highlights of what we learned:

  • London has no shortage of Wi-Fi possibilities. Practically every Wi-Fi access model ever imagined exists—from the most complicated set-ups to the simplest and most accessible ones around.  And everything in between. There is a good chance you will find Wi-Fi in cafes, restaurants, pubs, retail shops, phone booths, cabs, fast food establishments, underground stations, outdoor plazas, shopping streets, fitness centers, grocery stores, and leading banks.
  • A number of true Wi-Fi trendsetter/pioneers—including Barclays, Burberry, and Virgin Media—have  rolled out novel offerings in London.
    • Barclays – With one or more branches on every major street, this institution appears more ubiquitous than Starbucks coffee shops. Recently, Barclays broke new ground in the banking industry by rolling out an amenity Wi-Fi service in each of their 1600 branches across the U.K.  Always focused on the customer experience, Barclays made the Wi-Fi access simple, easy, and open, with a simple click-through to accept terms and conditions. This is a great case of the banking industry trusting the fact that banking apps have SSL encryption built-in and don’t need the extra overhead of encrypting the Wi-Fi traffic.
    • Burberry – This classic English retailer has a focus on digital, mobile, and social media and is, increasingly, integrating these aspects into their shopping experience. A good, solid, easy-to-connect Wi-Fi experience is essential to bring this all together.
    • Virgin Media – This megabrand rolled out Wi-Fi at 120 underground stations in time for the London Olympics. Extremely well received by tourists and locals alike, the service was initially free for all to use. Now it is available to those with certain mobile phone providers or as paid with a voucher scheme. I wonder how this change has affected its usage.
  • The 2012 London Olympics is a good example of how a major event provided the required motivation to significantly boost the accessibility, reliability, and coverage of Wi-Fi through London and the surrounding areas. This event-driven “Wi-Fi availability boost” will provide a model for upcoming events such as the Sochi and Rio Olympics. Tourists don’t want to pay high costs for mobile data when abroad, and they are delighted when they can find free, easy, and open Wi-Fi.
  • Many of the major UK Telecom Service providers such as Virgin Media, Telefonica/O2, BT, and The Cloud/BSkyB operate Wi-Fi networks that give venue owners lots of choices for Wi-Fi partnership. While some of the venue owners make it super user-friendly to access Wi-Fi with only a click-through portal, others still offer free and open access, but make it more difficult to connect by requiring an end-user to establish an account and provide personal information. As mentioned above, Telefonica/O2 is a major provider of Wi-Fi in the UK.  Mobile data users can find O2 Wi-Fi at McDonald’s, Debenhams, Costa Coffee, House of Fraser, and at Fullers and Mitchells & Butlers pubs.  The Cloud Wi-Fi deployments include Caffe Nero, Pizza Express, Pret a Manger, Wagamama, National Rail Train Stations, Odeon theaters, the City of London, various stadiums, and some shopping centers. BTWi-Fi’s networks are accessible at Starbucks, Hilton, Burger King, Westfield Shopping Centers, Victoria’s Secret, as well as at some airport lounges, motorway service stations and stadiums. Of the mobile operators, EE has a Wi-Fi app that makes it easy to connect to BT Public WiFi. And Vodafone has a mechanism to allow its customers to connect to BTWi-Fi hotspots.
  • A number of Wi-Fi providers are putting in content filtering solutions similar to those done by mobile operators. Most are DNS-based solutions today.
  • A lost opportunity seems to be at retailers such as Selfridges, Harrods, and Hamleys. These retail stalwarts are major tourists destinations, yet mobile coverage deep in their stores can often be spotty. I wonder, if shopping pioneer Harry Gordon Selfridge were alive today, would Selfridges be a Wi-Fi pioneer as well? Today there are countless examples of high-end, high-volume retailers—Bloomingdales, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, and many more—using Wi-Fi to their advantage.
  • Oxford Street is Europe’s largest shopping street with an impressive number of stores. The general WI-Fi experience extends that good impression. The multitude of both outdoor and indoor Wi-Fi options proved to our ground team that Oxford Street has the greatest density of hotspots over any other similar location to date.  It also shows just how bright the future is for Wi-Fi and retail.