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Where WiFi never sleeps

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Expensive Internet access in South Africa means free WiFi has never been common. In New York, security concerns have the same effect but, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, it’s still a city of 24/7 free WiFi.

They call New York the city that never sleeps. It was obvious why during a visit last week: day and night the throngs of people walking its most famed streets barely lets up. The buzz of activity and the hum of communications fills the air. Even when you don’t see it, still it’s there. Manhattan hosts probably the most intense concentration of wireless Internet access points, or WiFi hotspots, per square mile in the world.

Stand outside almost any building in the city, activate the WiFi setting on the device, and count the number of networks within reach. It often runs into the dozens.

One thing is striking about these networks, however: almost every one of the WiFi access points has a lock next to the name, indicating that it is a secure hotspot, and you need a password or ‚key‚ to unlock access. This is completely counter to the image the city has built up around the world of having unlimited free Internet access, literally pouring into the streets.

Mention this to the locals in the information or technology industries, and their eyes practically mist over as they wax nostalgic over a time when WiFi first began spreading across the city.

‚Aah, those were the days,‚ they almost say, as they recall a time when most hotspots were open, unsecured. Throughout the city, you could be confident of firing up your laptop and connecting instantly ‚ and at no cost ‚ to an Internet hotspot owned by a business or individual.

That was before there was much awareness of security as well as of abuse of networks. Kids (and not a few adults) downloading movies from your hotspot and sharing their downloads with the world through file-sharing systems are a sure source of jamming up your Internet access to the point of making it almost unusable.

Some restaurants that had used free WiFi as a marketing ploy responded to this threat by shutting down their Internet services, or at least locking it down. Many others, even in the busiest of business districts, shun the concept altogether.

‚We are about food, not laptops,‚ was a typical comment. In the emerging age of tablet computers, tbey are not changing their tune.

That has left a huge opportunity for more visionary groups, like Starbucks and Ruby Tuesday, to become the venues of choice for WiFi-hungry mobile workers. Today, they are almost the only sure-fire avenues for getting reliable free WiFi in New York.

Major tourist attractions also offer a service, but can be very spotty. At Rockefeller Plaza, if you are in the right spot, reception is superb. But the right spot ‚ as your WiFi-enabled phone will tell you ‚ can be in the middle of a pedestrian walkway. Others, like Times Square’s free WiFi, are so congested they are unusable.

It is ironic that the early proliferation of free WiFI was a direct result of cheap, high capacity Internet access in the United States.

In South Africa, most urban WiFI has always been secured with the virtual lock, and has tended to be excessively expensive when you attempt to unlock it. Precisely because the cost of Internet access has meant that it has not been viable to use it as a marketing tool.

Yet, there are establishments ‚ ranging from McDonalds in Sandton to the coffee lounge at the Hyatt Regency in Rosebank to the trendy Scusi restaurant in Parkview ‚ where that is exactly what they do offer.

But such establishments are rare, and they shut down at a respectable hour. In other words, even where we do have free WiFi, it all but keeps office hours.

* Arthur Goldstuck heads up the World Wide Worx hi-tech market research organisation and is editor-in-chief of Gadget. You can follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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Such a utopian idea. But one can dream. 🙂

The problem also is that the cellular data infrastructure is not open to transient access. Trying to get a prepaid sim is difficult enough and then trying to add data onto it requires a $20-$50 monthly subscription. We are spoilt here were we can pick up a sim almost anywhere, recharge it anywhere and use the data either at Out of Bundle rates or prepaid data packages at preferential rates.

The other thing that we have is the ubiquity of AlwaysOn. It is available almost everywhere and with roaming of wifi service providers both local and international. Solutions like G-Connect also make it easier for the local and international traveller to have a complete solution of data access.

We are spoilt in SA but we just dont know it, I found data access a nightmare in the States which made my iPhone’s features redundant except for phone calls and I was not prepared to foot roaming data bills.

On my return, before I had a chance to remove the SIM, I had a text message from T-Mobile saying that it would cost me $15 per MB to use their data services while roaming out of the USA. We’re not the only ones experiencing the roaming rip-off!”,”body-href”:””}]

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