/ Technology

Wi-fi hotspots or not-spots – how good is wi-fi on the go?

It doesn’t strike me as particularly surprising that the latest survey shows that two thirds of wi-fi users experience signal problems, including slow speeds and connection drop outs. But what’s it like on-the-go?

I’ve sat many a time tapping my fingers waiting for a page to load on my wi-fi connection at home.

Of course, it’s hard to tell whether it’s the wi-fi connection playing up, someone else in the house eating up the bandwidth, or problems with the line itself.

Wi-fi on the move

Broadband Choices’ survey seems to focus mainly on wi-fi in the home, but what about wi-fi hotspots that you can access when you’re out and about? In a situation where any number of people are trying to access the same wi-fi connection at the same time, surely it’s a recipe for a snail-paced disaster?

Press releases from BT Wi-fi (formally known as BT Openzone) periodically drop into my inbox with the latest number of wi-fi hotspots it has on offer. It’s now over four million apparently.

And although The Cloud, part of BSkyB, doesn’t have the same size of network as BT, it also offers wi-fi access for people on the go in places like Eat and Wagamamas. It claims to connect almost a million devices to its wi-fi hotspots every month.

Wi-fi vs 3G

But are either of their wi-fi hotspot offerings any good? Vince Russell, managing director of The Cloud, says ‘wi-fi is going to be vital to share the burden of all this data with the 3G network’. And so he would as wi-fi is his business, but as I, and I’m sure many others, will know from personal experience – connecting via 3G on your mobile can be unbearably slow.

So using a wi-fi hotspot network is certainly tempting, but are their offerings really fast enough? I’ve heard more than once that people have turned off their access to BT’s Openzone wi-fi because it was slower than the mobile 3G connection they could get. And I recently heard from a Which? member who said that successfully logging on to BT’s wi-fi hotspots was ‘a very rare occurrence’ having tried in many locations using different devices.

If these wi-fi hotspots are free, maybe we have nothing to complain about. But if we’re expected to pay, we’re definitely within our rights to demand a good service. Perhaps providers should concentrate on investing in the quality of their wi-fi offerings, rather than the quantity of hotspots?


O2, the first UK network to launch the iPhone, include in their iPhone packages access to BT Openzone wireless hotspots across the UK. The idea behind this is that the iPhone seamlessly connects to the internet using GPRS, 3G data and wireless hotspots using the best available connection without the user having to switch connections manually. When Orange and other UK networks started offering the iPhone, they likewise included access to BT Openzone in their iPhone packages. However, Orange iPhone customers have not received access to BT Openzone in a useable way. BT Openzone identifies O2 iPhone customers using the MAC address of each iPhone, which is seamless to the user. Orange chose a different authentication process for BT Openzone whereby customers have to enter their Orange mobile number and a very awkward password the first time they use BT Openzone. According to the help and support section of Orange’s web site (recently removed), “the next time you are in range of a BT Openzone hotspot your iPhone will connect automatically without asking you for your phone number or password“, which should ultimately give the same seamless experience that O2 customers receive. However, this is not the case, because all Orange users are finding they have to re-enter their Orange mobile number and awkward password every time they use a BT Openzone hotspot. The impact of this fault is:

Instead of receiving the intended seamless switching between mobile data and wireless data, customers have to re-authenticate manually every time they use a BT Openzone hotpot.
Whenever a user moves within range of a BT Openzone hotspot while using an app that is already connected to the internet via GPRS or 3G data, the iPhone connects to BT Openzone which immediately cuts off the app’s connection to the internet, because BT Openzone doesn’t provide internet connectivity until the user manually switches to Safari and re-authenticates or uses a cumbersome app that Orange released as an unsuccessful workaround.

Orange’s press release on 9th November 2009 when they released the iPhone 3GS stated “The first time you connect to a hotspot you will need to enter your mobile phone number and WiFi password, after that your iPhone will connect automatically“. Lots of Orange customers added comments to this press release, hosted on Orange’s own web site, complaining that the BT Openzone service does not function as promised but Orange has since removed the comments in order to cover up its failure.

i bought an o2 dongle on the basis it would connect to bt openzone hot spots.

i NEVER managed to connect to one trying over a period of 2 years – and NEVER got anywhere with the o2 help teams.

I often just use my 3 MiFi if there is network coverage. It can save a lot of messing about with logging into wi-fi networks. Wi-fi has become so common that it can be difficult to work out which network is available and signal strength is not a reliable indicator of which one to try first.

Rosemary says:
13 August 2012

I have always found the BT Openzone to be useless. Almost any time I tried to connect to it, it didn’t work. Now I’ve left BT and get my internet from UTV. If I’m out and about, I use an O2 internet dongle which has been 100% reliable.

Happy WiFi user says:
15 August 2012

If you have trouble on Openzone (BT WiFi) as a BT customer, try calling their Helpdesk – they’re really helpful and in my experience the problem is normally with the device not the service.

As a mobile customer – its less easy as only O2 has anything like a decent experience (we’ve tried 3 of them so far and Orange blamed us and said we clearly didn’t know how to use the service…our fault I assume).

Just remember in busy places at busy times bandwidth will be contended – that’s life!

Stefan says:
13 August 2012

I have BT Openzone access as part of my mobile phone monthly contract. You may associate it with the service that BT publish as their BT wifi package. Do not make that mistake. BT Openzone LIght would be a more descriptive name. Almost always an attempt to log in will result in being told that your mobile service provider does not provide access at that particular site. Getting in is very rare indeed and is likely to be at a location where you have good 3G anyway. In my view it’s little better than useless and dissapointing.

The Cloud fairs better. You have to log in each time which is a bit of a pain but hardly a show stopper. You are likely to have more luck with The Cloud than BT wifi and you are not paying for it!

(Sent from my iPhone on a very slow 2g connection. No wifi around here!)

I’m supposed to get access to BT as I’m an O2 customer, but whenever I try to access it I get directed to the Openzone page, which wants me to log in. Then doesn’t provide any obvious place to log in!

BT Openzone hotspot numbers include large numbers of BTFON hotspots “provided” by private individuals through their HomeHubs ( if they havent disabled the facility).
These by their very nature are likely to give very poor reception outside the house and so are probably pretty useless.
BT Openzone keep changing the naming system for their different types of hotspots which doesnt help either.

Ross says:
23 April 2013

I can testify that the FON network is outstanding. 5mb speed mostly very easy to connect and you do NOT need to be a BT customer to have this FON to share with since FON is a separate company who just happen to be partnered up with BT. you can buy the standard Fonera Simple (same as what comes built in with BT hub you can buy it for £35 once off lifetime fee and use it on any ISP you happen to have . you can even buy the advanced version that you can get some of the revenue sent in to your PAYPAL account , that costs £59 and is also a Network Attached Storage BOX too. the advanced version that can collect revenue is ideal if you live near a train station or in any town like above any shop in town and you will earn a lot of cash.

Hello Ross, we’ve removed a number of your comments as they appear to be advertising. We’ve allowed one through but please don’t post advertorial links, and especially don’t make the same comment multiple times as they look like spam.

reply to advertising says:
25 April 2013

it is strange that you concider 400 words of negative critisims at the start of the topic as perfectly ok but 50 positive words of my personal experience as advertising. If something is good then why should it be prevented. unless this is just a website to complain. quite bizar !

We’re quite happy for people to recommend services and champion the good ones, but if they read like they could be self-promotional, with comments that are copy and paste, then they are not allowed as they look like spam.

Three cheers for fibre optic cable connections – always reliable and less chance of snooping. Fast crisp and clear.

Anthony says:
14 August 2012

I mostly use my 3G connection when out and about. But recently in a national pub chain I tried The Cloud as I am sky bb customer. I was impressed. Easy connection, fast delivery and no trouble at all. My wife was with me and her device could also connect without problems.

It may have helped that we don’t live in London with it’s overcrowded airwaves of course. And it may also help that we don’t use fruity devices either.

anon the mouse says:
15 August 2012

I love free public wifi. I just block all other users and suddenly get a usable speed.

Oh and by just connecting to the router (bt openzone, cloud, etc), and not authenticating I can still block you, and also see ALL information sent to/from the router. That includes the “seperate and private” network on BT routers.

3G is usable at decent speeds in most locations, and crucially is currently practically impossible to crack on the fly.
By connecting to a public WIFI hotspot you are joining a random network of devices that can be infected, running a MITM attack, sniffing the network or actively hacking your device.

Why risk your security for the sake of WIFI? and a one that runs slowly at that.

*disclaimer: What I have listed above can be done using an android device and freely available apps.
My blocking/MITM/etc tests were conducted on my own devices or those of friends and family with their permission.

BT Openzone suggests to me that it is free. Maybe a name change would be in order.

In fact, it would help if free wi-fi included ‘free’ in the name. By free I mean free and not free for 15 minutes and then £5 per hour, as with East Coast trains for example.

FC360 says:
16 August 2012

I live in a area where there aren’t many wifi hotspots that are open. There are some listed as being open however I am unable to actually access them as the business has decided to lock them for some reason. I would never do anything other then gaming on a public wifi hotspot and probably wouldn’t do this anymore after my last attempt at a restaurant, connection dropping all the time, taking forever to find a match and eventually ending with a member of staff walking upto me and asking what I’m doing and saying I’m not allowed to use the wifi even though it’s free according to my mobile app that finds wifi hotspots.

Magoo says:
17 August 2012

So who scoffed your grub while you was fannying about playing games in the restaurant?
As soon as I saw you take your device out I would have picked-off the best bits on your plate but still expected you to chip your share of the bill in.

FC360 says:
17 August 2012

Every time I go to a restaurant it takes them 30 minutes for me to get my meal which is more then enough time to have a race or battle on Mario Kart. If someone ate more then half of the stuff on my plate I would just order another 1 since the restaurant is a buy 1 get 1 free restaurant 🙂

I suggest you make your selection from the children’s menu, FC360. 🙂

FC360 says:
18 August 2012

hahaha indeed Wavechange 🙂

Michael says:
17 August 2012

I am a BT broadband customer and use Openzone and BT Fon all over the country without too many problems once I have found a hotspot. I have never been away and not found one within about 100 yards; I may have to stand in the street but I can get a connection to read and respond to emails. We had cottages in towns and villages and have often been able to get a connection from within the cottage. I use to use a laptop but now rely on my Ipad for connection.

I fear that you might worry some pacemaker users unnecessarily. I have not seen warnings about broadband, but mobile phones should certainly be kept away from pacemakers.

As for yourself, it’s very difficult to avoid wi-fi these days. Anyone with frequent dizzy spells should certainly seek medical advice.

Oops. This is a reply to esttel’s message below.

FC360 says:
18 August 2012

I wonder what would happen if a customer signed up for the BT openzone thing and then replaced their homehub with a different router. I am a BT customer but hate the idea of sharing my bandwidth with other users which is why I’m not registered to BT openzone, my current bandwidth is barely enough for my needs as it is without having some complete stranger being sat in a car using up some bandwidth too. I am tempted to try and get this openzone thing on my account but not replacing my current router with the homehub so meaning no1 can actually connect to my internet.

Ross says:
23 April 2013

you can set the throttling of sharing to a lower setting from the default 5mb to 1 mb in the setting of the homehub

esttel says:
17 August 2012

My husband has a pace maker and cannot be where wireless is. I also get dizzy if in an area for too long that has wi-fi. for me Less is More.

i’m not a medical person but i know a bit about radio.

the signal strength from the hotspot transmitter is negligable in the vicinity of your head.

by contrast when using a mobile phone held to your ear the signal stregnth is many many times greater.

your phone signal has to be able to reach the mobile mast which may be a mile or more away.

if you are worried about hotspots — be very worried using a mobile phone.

trotter says:
19 August 2012

Does anyone have the link for free wifi on vodafone?

I did find it once on their website but its such a mess i cant locate it anymore 🙁

have used the cloud in wetherspoons a couple of times.

it worked — no trouble at all.

I realise this is an old Conversation, but I don’t think I can start a new one myself, so here goes …
This is about personal WiFi hotspots. I’ve been sitting waiting around in hospitals for the last week, and thinking about how to get an WiFi internet connection – not for use on a mobile phone, but for something like a Kindle or a non-3G iPad. It doesn’t look like Which? has reviewed any personal WiFi devices, and I wondered if other members have had any experience with these – are they really effective and usable? Any pitfalls to be aware of?

The big challenge is to get a useable signal when using mobile broadband. I bought a 3 MiFi several years ago and it has been both my favourite and most annoying gadget, depending on whether I have a decent signal.

I initially bought the MiFi so that I could get both a laptop and an iPad online cheaply, and I’ve been buying 12GB/1year SIMS online for less than £55, making mobile broadband very affordable. Since the MiFi has an internal battery and is wireless it can be put somewhere with a signal while I have used the laptop/tablet somewhere convenient, making it much better than a plug-in dongle or internal SIM card.

I decided to pension off the MiFi and use tethering on a new phone instead. That was without thinking about the silly things I have done with the MiFi, like leaving it on the windowsill in a pub and driving off with it on the roof of the car when leaving a motorway service area. It still worked when I put the bits back together. I am certainly not going to take risks with an expensive smartphone, so I might carry on using the battered MiFi or even buy a newer and faster version. It would indeed be good to have some advice from Which? and there may be some advice on Which? Tech Daily – a sister site to this one.

Cheers, @wavechanger … the big attraction of a MiFi-like device for me is that I can hand it to another family member if needed; it won’t need a specific xG smartphone to be available for a tethered connection.
Take your point about signal strength and the frustration that could cause. Good policy not to take boradband for granted, yet :-).
Anything to say from Which? on this topic? Is this something that might be reviewed, or is to too niche a category?

Perhaps I am being a bit pessimistic because I am often in rural areas where mobile phone signals are poor, whatever the service providers claim. It is a lot better in build-up areas. Anyone with a tablet or laptop can share a MiFi. I have the password on the back of mine and it gets shared in meetings or lent to friends when they are on holiday.

One thing to watch for is that you need to temporarily change your SMTP setting for outgoing email unless you are using webmail.

Ross says:
28 April 2014

I use FON . though nowhere near as mobile and convenient as my 3G/4G Mifi box the FON has an advantage in that you get same bandwidth as you get at any home broadband . I thought It was exclusively for BT customers but no so . You can buy a FON box for £35 for lifetime free Wifi and I found that in residential areas 1 in 4 houses had a FON or BT FON so i could just drive to where I needed Wifi. Not as convenient at Mifi but extremely fast

Thanks @Ross. I just looked up their hotspot search facility. I can see how FON might be useful in a residential area. By definition, it appears that in a non-residential neighbourhood such as a large hospital complex, there wouldn’t be a usable hotspot?