Mostly written on the train whilst travelling across Suffolk and Essex. Edited in my home office and dispatched from an open wi-fi node I found in Woodbridge whilst having coffee

Every time I write anything about wi-fi, feature the topic in a presentation or even include it in casual conversation, it seems to invoke a raft of angst that is out of all proportion to the context or importance of the technology or the topic.

For the most part the wi-fi responses seem rational – but extreme! I was recently challenged by a stream of emails roughly along the lines of:

  • It’s alright for you in the big cities but out here in the sticks finding a broadband connection is near impossible and there is no wi-fi anywhere!
  • We don’t all have fancy equipment like you!
  • Where is all this (free) wi-fi? I can’t see it – how do you find it?
  • Logging onto free wi-fi signals and using them is illegal, isn’t it?
  • You can go to jail for…
  • You are legally responsible and at risk for…

Many of these points have been covered in previous blogs – here’s a round-up in case you missed them the first time around:

To cover off the latest series of challenges and objections I thought I’d extend and expand my experiments in the UK and make them more substantive. So for the past few months I have been travelling with my laptop in wi-fi scan mode, collecting data on signals as I go. As it happens, I have been working and travelling across Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devonshire and Buckinghamshire. Some of my working locations have been really remote and the areas traversed very sparsely populated.

I cannot claim that these results are 100 per cent accurate, or provide a complete picture of the UK – they are merely a representative sample of remote and rural locations where the economic conditions span from the affluent to the needy and disadvantaged. Furthermore, I purposely scanned small villages of 30 dwellings or less through to towns up to 30,000 homes. The biggest practical difficulty was counting the actual number of dwellings and the biggest error generator was the inefficiency of my laptop antenna.

Let me put the experimental set-up in context. Either my laptop was on my knee whilst my wife was driving, or it was strapped into the passenger seat at the side of me whilst I was driving. There was no special antenna, no extra amplification, nothing but a naked laptop operating below the widow line in a standard automobile. I think I can therefore safely conclude that my reported results are likely to be pessimistic. That is, there are actually more wi-fi nodes out there than I could detect!

The results have been confined to the UK and turned out to be very interesting. For example, I never expected to be able to drive along a motorway or dual carriageway at 70mph, or a country road at 60mph, and still be able to pick up wi-fi signals. And even more of a surprise has been the visibility of wi-fi when passing buildings at 90mph and 120mph on a train.

So what did I find? A typical scan page (with node identifiers and Mac addresses blanked out) is included below for a scan of approximately 642 residences revealing 40 wi-fi nodes of which 12 are open and most likely accessible for anyone wishing to use them. So for this scan I think I can safely state that wi-fi density is greater than 6.2 per cent of homes with around 30 per cent of these nodes offering open access.

And what of the results for the entire experiment including rural locations? I never found a location with less than one per cent wi-fi density by number of dwellings, and the number was never greater than 33 per cent. To date the average for rural locations and small towns has been 6.5 per cent. As for the number of open wi-fi signals, this averaged 23 per cent and ranged from 9.5 per cent to 38 per cent.

The only way I could think of checking the reasonableness of my experimental numbers was to look at the sales figures for wi-fi nodes in the UK. As far as I can see, the past 18 months alone has seen retail sales of 1.6 million wi-fi terminals. So with roughly 24 million homes (it was 22.5 million in 2001), the UK wi-fi density must exceed 6.7 per cent across the board.

This is probably a safe/pessimistic figure if we assume the percentage of retail sales for office and business applications are on a par with home use purchases, and the sales cycle to date has been around five years.

In a few weeks I’ll be heading up to Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire et al. I don’t intend on reporting my findings here, or indeed have any intention to perform an extensive sample but I will be taking a look-see! I suspect the numbers are going to be pretty much similar for all rural locations.

Now for a simple calculation. Suppose the average wi-fi density per residence in the UK really is around seven per cent as suggested by my findings so far. This would mean there are 3.43 million wi-fi domestic nodes in total. Now contrast this with the cellular mobile network which has (in round numbers) approximately 50,000 transmitter sites.

It would seem wi-fi nodes outnumber cellular mobile transmitters by at least 69:1. By next year this figure can be projected to be in excess of 100:1. Even if we do the comparison based on open nodes alone, the ratio is still 16:1 today and more than 32:1 next year. And remember this does not include the big towns and cities with all their business nodes, which I would suggest will most likely at least double this number.

I think we can now safely assume the world of wireless micro-cells has arrived, is growing much faster than the old world of mobile phones and now dominates all data communication connectivity. Incredibly the mobile operators have been eclipsed in less than five years by a network that has no central organisation, no plan, no investment bodies – just people doing their own thing!

p.s. I’m off to cruise around the streets of London to see what I can find and these results I will report.

p.p.s. Here’s a typical screen shot from my scanner with key identifiers blanked: