Photo: Istockphoto

This article was first published in the 1st quarter 2017 edition of Personal Finance magazine.


Have you ever watched smartphone or laptop users who cannot connect to the internet? Screen icons are tapped furiously, passwords are checked and re-entered, heart rates climb … it would be quite funny if it were not so serious. The fact is, we have come to regard internet connectivity as a basic human right, an essential element of an increasingly complex web of communication that most of us don’t fully understand. When one strand of that web – for instance, a wi-fi signal – is absent, we tend to react with a mixture of outrage and disbelief.

As many hapless users have discovered, data usage is inextricably linked to money. Use too much and your pocket will feel a very distinct pinch (in extreme cases, it’s more like a blow to the solar plexus). If you require data access only at home and enjoy the convenience of uncapped wi-fi connectivity, the issue is probably of academic interest only. But if you’re a tourist, telecommuter, cash-strapped student or peripatetic worker with no access to an office, it’s a very different story.

Encouragingly, our regional and national governments appear to agree – at least, in principle – that free wi-fi (wireless fidelity, referring to a wireless local area network) should be available to everyone. To that end, they have spent a fair amount of money on the provision of access points in key areas that allow anyone limited access to the internet (data caps vary from place to place) for research, web browsing, email communication and other activities. South Africa has set itself a deadline of 2020 for the provision of universal mobile broadband access.

Meanwhile, the private sector, for reasons ranging from commercially sensible to socially responsible, has filled in many gaps and continues to roll out new wi-fi access points almost daily. Among them are hundreds of coffee shops and restaurants whose owners have come to regard free wi-fi as no less important than clean tables and polite staff – and therein lies a challenge. As more and more people pitch up with the primary intention of accessing the internet for free, exhibiting little or no interest in the consumption of food and beverages, is there a point where proprietors say “enough is enough” and pull the plug?

Recently, British Guardian newspaper columnist Jimi Famurema highlighted the dilemma of coffee-shop owners who know that free wi-fi is an essential part of their offering, yet find themselves overrun by “the familiar army of MacBook-clutching freelancers, scanning the floor for somewhere to plug in”. A self-confessed “cybersquatter” himself, Famurema said some coffee-shop owners are going so far as to disconnect their routers, hide plug sockets and ditch desk-style seating to discourage these customers.

Are South Africa’s free wi-fi users just as brazen? Francois Briel, the general manager of the popular, steampunk-themed Truth Coffee emporium in Buitenkant Street, Cape Town, doesn’t think so. He says laptop users have always been part of their customer mix, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. As he tells it: “We’ve never needed to dictate how people spend their time here. It’s a coffee relationship … a collaboration with our loyal customers.”

Why a collaboration? Briel elaborates: “We make it very easy for them to connect. We have powerpoints dangling over the benches, we have extension leads if required, and this year we converted to a very fast fibre connection with different routers for customers and staff (the latter use iPads to take down orders). We provide one hour of free access per day, with no data cap, and customers who need more time can buy data at R60 a gigabyte.”


The trade-off

What does he think about Famurema’s observations on coffee shops as social environments and the so-called “mausoleum vibe” resulting from 15 people sitting silently at 15 different tables, with no conversation. Briel smiles. “This will never happen at Truth Coffee. It’s a coffee shop, and it’s noisy. We like it that way.”

Deputy manager Samantha Long agrees, adding that laptop users tend to congregate on the benches, where the powerpoints are located. “This makes it beneficial for both parties.” Is there a trade-off between cost, occupied space and customer loyalty? “Definitely,” she replies, “but so far it’s working for everyone. Customers use our wi-fi and in return they buy our coffee or other drinks.”

And if someone takes advantage of the system? “We would never chase anyone away, but we might gently encourage them to have another cuppa. Sometimes we feel generous and give them the first one free.”

It seems that South Africa’s 196 Mugg & Bean outlets have a similarly accommodating attitude towards customers who spend half a morning staring at a screen while nursing a single mug of flat white. It’s not a problem, according to brand manager Marié Rossouw. She elaborates: “This is directly in line with our brand philosophy, which encourages people to stay longer, as opposed to other outlets that have a turn-table philosophy.”

Okay, but surely there are instances when customers abuse the system? Says Rossouw: “Not much. Our business is about people, a lot of whom do their business at Mugg & Bean.” Okay, then how about the contention that coffee shops and restaurants such as Mugg & Bean are generally sociable spaces where people eat, drink, meet, talk and catch up. According to critics, the laptop brigade tends to be silent and solitary, and may actually spoil the vibe.

Rossouw will have none of this, asserting: “Laptops have become an everyday thing … people work wherever they are. People tend to choose their own space according to their style, so a quiet person might opt for a corner table at the back, whereas someone who is not bothered by noise will sit anywhere.

“Our service is unrushed and unobtrusive, and lends itself to both environments. We specifically design our restaurants to cater for as many plug points as possible for laptops and cellphones, and have even introduced wireless charging units in some outlets.” It gets better: from March 2017, Mugg & Bean customers will enjoy “bottomless” wi-fi (that is, no data or time limits) in all outlets.


How to get on board

Probably the best-known free wi-fi provider is AlwaysOn, which offers 30 free minutes of internet access every day – enough to exchange emails, browse the web (beware data-hungry YouTube videos) and perhaps catch up on your Facebook friends’ activities (you can download the Lite version of the ubiquitous social media app and save lots of data). This is what it calls a “browser wi-fi hotspot”, and it’s indicated by a large “B” on the company’s hotspot finder.

Using it is simplicity itself. Because your smartphone or laptop comes with built-in wi-fi, all you have do is switch it on, visit the AlwaysOn website and register to create an account, using your email and/or mobile number and password. If you like, you can automate the experience by downloading the AlwaysOn wi-fi app.

For anything more extravagant (watching a video, for instance, or extended browsing), you’ll have to buy a data package. As an example, one hour of AlwaysOn wi-fi data at a once-off cost of R50 will give you uncapped internet access at multiple hotspots (a hotspot is an area or zone where you can connect wirelessly to a public wi-fi network with your smart device) for 60 minutes, which works out at 83 cents a minute. This should allow you to download up to 40 songs or 20 (non-HD) videos. To do this, you have to be registered and logged in to your AlwaysOn account.

AlwaysOn also offers something called Super Wi-Fi, which it describes as “wi-fi on steroids”, at certain hotspots – indicated by an “S” on the hotspot finder. This high-speed fibre connection is geared for high-definition quality and high data volumes, allowing you to watch videos, download apps “and do all the cool things that need a high-speed connection”. AlwaysOn hotspots may be found at all major airports, as well as many shopping malls and restaurants; look out for the “AlwaysOn Wi-Fi” sticker on the shop window.

The company has a rather quaint way of describing how it all works, using the analogy of flowing water: “We bring the water (bandwidth) into a venue using physical pipes; these are connected to the water system (the internet). Once inside a venue, we use a sprinkler system (access points) to spray the water around; this spray is wi-fi. Your phone, laptop or tablet is a cup, and when you are connected to AlwaysOn Wi-Fi, you are essentially standing in the spray area, catching water in the cup.”

When connectivity is poor, it goes on to explain, you could be standing at the very edge of the spray, so that only some of the water reaches you (indicated by one or two wi-fi bars on your device). Another possible culprit is the pipe connecting the sprinkler to the water system: if it’s too small, there won’t be enough spray to fill everyone’s cups. However, if everyone else leaves, your cup will receive all the available water from the sprinkler, dramatically improving your browsing experience.

Planning to travel overseas? Your AlwaysOn wi-fi account allows access across a million hotspots in many countries; these can be located using the app or online hotspot finder.

An additional service that’s catching on fast is AlwaysOn Calling, which enables you to make calls from your smartphone over wi-fi or 3G (apparently the wi-fi option works better) rather than using your own cellular network, with concomitant savings. This service is currently available only for Android devices, but AlwaysOn is reportedly working on an iOS app.

AlwaysOn Calling uses about 30MB per hour of talk time, and the cost is covered by your cellular network or wi-fi provider. According to AlwaysOn, it uses about the same amount of data that would be consumed by a Skype or WhatsApp call, but if you make the call through AlwaysOn Wi-Fi, you will be charged only for the call time, not the data. How does this work in practical terms? The company says: “We offer all users 20 minutes of calling time, billed per second, for free. After that, we will charge R30 per 60-minute top up.”

At this stage, AlwaysOn says, the service offers only calls within South Africa, both mobile and landline. “This is to make the service manageable and easy to use from a billing perspective.” Prepaid data cards are available from selected Pick n Pay outlets at R199 for 10GB. Once activated (you have up to 36 months to decide when to do this), the cards are valid for 60 days.

There are already 3 500-plus AlwaysOn hotspots dotted around the country, according to managing director Hayden Lamberti, and many more are in the pipeline. These attract about 1.4 million unique visitors a month, most of them taking advantage of free wi-fi access – primarily because they have no wi-fi at home. About two-thirds of these fall into LSM 1 to 5 (living standards measure), he reveals, and this will almost certainly determine the location of new hotspots – informal settlements, for instance.


Jobs and education

“Our premium clients help to cover the costs of the free service,” Lamberti says. “Research shows that the two primary interests of the free wi-fi users are job searches and education. The cost of wi-fi access may not be significant to you and me, but the reality is very different for those in the lower-income group. We set out to make things easy for everyone, using a one-click access.”

What does he think about the debate surrounding free wi-fi access in coffee shops and restaurants? “If you don’t offer it, or you make it difficult to access, you will definitely lose a certain number of customers. But having said that, when I go out with my family, I would prefer them not to be staring at a screen all the time. I prefer us to be engaged.”

Cost and infrastructure challenges notwithstanding, there’s no doubt that free public wi-fi is growing rapidly throughout the country, albeit through the implementation of radically different strategies. In Cape Town, for example, the city owns and administers the infrastructure, while in Tshwane the spread of hotspots is determined by a rental agreement.

In the Mother City, users are provided with 100MB of free data at a connection speed of 30Mbps (a theoretical speed that is rarely if ever achieved). In 2016, the Western Cape provincial government partnered with Neotel to launch 50 free public wi-fi hotspots in a number of areas. Plans call for the launch of about 100 hotspots, with routers mounted outside certain buildings to provide connectivity within a 200-metre radius, during the 2016/17 financial year, and an additional 234 hotspots during the 2017/18 financial year.

Users have access to 250MB of data a month and can buy more data at very reasonable rates: as an example, 700MB costs R5 and 7GB sells for just R45. The really good news is that the data you buy is valid until 2024. Look for them at www.findfreewifi.co.za.


We, the people

And then there’s Project Isizwe, a non-profit company managing the deployment of the largest free public wi-fi network in South Africa. Founded by entrepreneur Alan Knott-Craig, the organisation delivers free wi-fi to more than two million people across Tshwane via 1 000-plus wi-fi hotspots – known as TshWi-Fi Free Internet Zones. Reportedly the biggest deployment of its kind on the African continent, the initiative was honoured in 2016 with a World Wi-Fi Day Award in the category for the most innovative city or government programme.

According to its website, Project Isizwe works with local, provincial and national government to provide wi-fi in low-income communities for the purposes of education, economic development and social inclusion, enabling access to the internet as a catalyst for change.

By all accounts, it’s a much-needed service with massive potential for change: the organisation cites a World Bank report estimating that for every 10 percent penetration of internet access, a country’s gross domestic product grows by 1.28 percent.


WHERE TO GO

You don’t have to be a caffeine addict to take advantage of free wi-fi. Alternatives to coffee shops include libraries, petrol stations, fast-food chains such as McDonald’s and Wimpy, Spur restaurants, clinics, recreation centres, supermarkets, shopping malls, hairdressing salons, hotels and even car dealerships.

The rules vary from place to place: some outlets offer limited data with no time restriction, others limit both time and data, and a third group has no restrictions whatsoever.

Telecoms operators are also part of the mix, of course. Vodacom, for instance, has partnered with a company called WirelessG to provide easy wi-fi access through G-Connect and AlwaysOn hotspots. A 250MB data bundle costs R29 and is valid for 30 days, and a 2GB bundle costs R99 (also expiring after 30 days).

If you’re on Telkom prepaid and buy R50 worth of airtime, you are allocated seven days of unlimited wi-fi access (a 2GB “fair usage” policy applies), and R100 or more gets you 30 days of connectivity. Extra wi-fi bundles sell for R15 for 30 minutes or R25 for an hour. Not with Telkom? You can still get 30 minutes of free wi-fi; look for one of 5 500 Telkom hotspots near your location: visit www.telkom.co.za.


HACKERS LOVE CAFFEINE TOO

A word of caution: do not be tempted to carry out banking activities while connected to free wi-fi. You may well enjoy the protection of antivirus software courtesy of Sophos, AVG, Norton, Kaspersky or the like, but it’s just not worth the risk. Hackers are very smart people indeed and lurking in coffee shops is right up their street.