UK wi-fi: the ultimate guide
Need broadband internet access on the go or where a fixed line is unavailable? Wi-fi is for you.
As our need to get online has grown and, not coincidentally, mobile data services have faced an unprecedented capacity crunch and soaring prices, UK wi-fi access has come on leaps and bounds.
According to The Cloud, the use of free wi-fi services was three times higher in 2012 than in 2011.
Finding free and cheap wi-fi
Free and cheap wi-fi is all around: you just have to know where to look.
Many commercial premises offer internet access for free to their paying customers, in the case of national chains often through big networks like The Cloud and O2 wi-fi, although how far an establishment will let you stretch the definition of 'paying customer' varies.
For those who want to use a wi-fi hotspot on a regular basis it's usually much easier to bite the bullet and subscribe to a package from one of the biggest providers: BT Wi-fi.
BT wi-fi (formally known as BT Openzone) has more than 4.5 million wi-fi hotspots throughout the UK and Ireland, plus another 3 million overseas through BT Fon. BT has also teamed up with a number of brands to provide internet access in public places.
The vast majority of BT wi-fi hotspots are broadcast by normal BT Broadband customers via their BT Home Hub wireless routers and the second biggest slice are similarly broadcast by BT business broadband users. BT wi-fi hotspots have increased by 40% in the last year alone.
As a result, coverage is generally good but there are few guarantees.
To be sure of finding a good wi-fi signal it can be worth trying the few thousand official BT wi-fi hotspots installed in cafes, hotels, airports and motorway service stations or the 13 big hotspots covering whole city centres.
Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham, Portsmouth, Sheffield, Waltham Forest and Westminster are also known as 'wireless cities', as they all have BT wi-fi city centres.
Vouchers and packages
BT wi-fi access is free for BT broadband customers.
They just use their normal BT login to gain access. Our review into BT broadband has more information.
Those that aren't BT home broadband customers must pay for access either with a voucher or on a PAYG basis.
Pre-pay vouchers are much better value for money and cost from £4 for an hour to £39 for 30 days.
There's even a contract available for £15 a month.
The Cloud, owned by BSkyB, is the UK's biggest high street wi-fi provider, and operates throughout Europe as well.
The UK's Cloud hotspots are usually privately owned by businesses. Branches of Pizza Express, Pret A Manger, McDonald's, Punch Taverns, Marriott Hotels and numerous train stations (see below for links to locations) all use The Cloud, for example.
Connecting to The Cloud
The Cloud offer an Android FastConnect app for quicker connection.
Users register once in order to be automatically connected to Cloud hotspots so that they don't need to sign in to each location.
Note that the Nintendo 3DS will automatically connect to The Cloud, provided that users download and install the 3DS internet browser.
There is no cost to access The Cloud hotspots because the companies offering the network absorb the cost. Head to The Cloud's hotspot finder to find the nearest one.
Since selling The Cloud to Sky in January 2011, O2 have promised to bring a huge, totally free wi-fi network to the UK.
So far, however, free O2 hotspots seem to mainly be limited to 450 O2-owned sites, mainly the provider's stores, and some big national chains like McDonald's, Harvester and Costa Coffee.
Expansion to 15,000 sites is planned for the end of 2013.
Take a look at the Find a Hotspot page to check for availability near you.
Both the two wi-fi hotspot providers above and the many other local providers, businesses and councils offering wi-fi for free, can be hard to locate, however.
Here are some ways to find them.
- Jiwire Hotspot Finder is available online or as a free app on both Android and iOS platforms. Search options include street address, postcode, provider and proximity.
- iPass Hotspot Finder can be accessed online or via their app (see picture) and allows you to find hotspots all around the world. You can search via venue name, town or postcode or allow it to track your location and find the nearest hotspot to you.
- Myhotspots is an impartial website which gives a fairly exhaustive account of wi-fi hotspots across the UK.
- Hotspot Locations lists everything from commercial and non-commercial community networks to private hotspots.
- For the best hotspot finders when you're not in the UK have a look at our guide to getting online abroad here.
As we noted above, some of the UK's biggest high street names provide free wi-fi access to their customers, provided you buy something.
If you pop in and set yourself up without looking likely to even purchase a coffee, be prepared for some dodgy looks from the staff.
Here are just some of the companies offering wi-fi to their customers and links to maps for your nearest participating branches:
None of these appeal?
If these free wi-fi options seem like an awful lot of hassle there are some more personal alternatives.
Tethering: a very local hotspot
One option is turning your 3G or 4G enabled phone into a modem that emits a wi-fi signal just like a very local hotspot.
Most smartphones and some networks allow their users to generate wi-fi like this fairly easily: see our guide to tethering mobile phones for more on how to do it.
Finally, of course, there is mobile broadband through a USB dongle, external modem or microSIM for iPads or other tablets.
Compare deals and get more information over here.
The future of free wi-fi
Virgin free wi-fi for all
From the Olympics up until the beginning of February 2013, Virgin Media offered free wi-fi in many London tube stations.
Now, users have to pay: from £2 a day to £15 for a month.
However, the ISP also has free wi-fi ambitions. In a bid to challenge the BT Wi-fi and the O2 wi-fi network, their vision is to install a wi-fi router in every side street cabinet which would then provide local homes and businesses with access to the company's network.
Like BT Wi-fi, much of that will run off excess wireless provided by existing Virgin Media customers.
Also like BT, Virgin Media plans to offer an extra break for its broadband customers.
The network would be open to anyone at relatively low speeds of 0.5Mb, but subscribers of its home wi-fi could see speeds of up to 10Mb.
"This is to solve a real problem [and] we've got the best fibre network in the country that could help meet it," Virgin Media's brilliantly titled Director of Advanced Technology Kevin Baughan said.
"This isn't about building broad coverage, it's about giving you fast, predictable, access where you need it" Baughan further added.
While Virgin started 'actively exploring' the idea more than three years ago, we have yet to see any concrete developments though.