The Rise And Rise of Public Wi-fi in Britain

public wi-fi

Public wi-fi in the UK has experienced a bumpy ride, with initial excitement about its possibilities giving way to doubt and indecision.

A much-heralded town wi-fi scheme in Swindon, for instance, turned into an expensive, high-profile flop, with a 2014 report revealing a host of planning, roll-out and financial errors involved in the process.

Comprehensive public wi-fi programs remain relatively scarce in Britain outside major cities, especially in smaller towns which need them most because of poor or non-existent mobile coverage.

Those charged with delivering public wi-fi – town teams, BIDS and local authorities – are often hamstrung by worries about cost and performance, confusion over choices and ignorance of the sophisticated marketing opportunities they can create.

Yet there’s no denying the pulling power of public wi-fi and its increasing importance in a digital age.

In this chapter, we take a look at how UK  towns are funding and customising public wi-fi schemes.

We’ll also examine which sophisticated footfall tracking devices and new ‘pavement’ technology are now available.

Young black female at cafe using laptop. African young woman sitting in a restaurant busy working on her laptop.

More public wi-fi, more customers

The 2015 Digital High Street 2020 Report noted a positive relationship between cities and towns with multiple wi-fi ‘hotspots’ and the presence of digitally engaged consumers on the high street.

The trend held true even in the smallest centres in the study. If the small town had more than one wi-fi hotspot, the same positive relationship existed between the level of wi-fi access and the presence of digitally engaged customers.

So free wi-fi can be a magnet, drawing visitors to shopping centres, pubs, eateries, public spaces and town centres.

Deloitte statistics for 2015 show that 76% of adults in Britain now own Smartphones, with 50% of Smartphone owners regularly using their devices on public transport, at work and while shopping.

With consumers increasingly dependent on mobile use, the power of the wi-fi magnet is set to explode.

Which is why the government’s Superconnected Cities program has rolled out free wi-fi in key city centres across Britain.

Why free public wi-fi?

Public wi-fi is an effective way for towns, villages and rural centres to overcome poor, slow and inconsistent mobile coverage. We all know how that can be a frustration for businesses, a nuisance for residents and a real annoyance for visitors.

Nearly 43% of Britons are frustrated by lack of free, public wi-fi networks available, according to YouGov research detailed in the Digital High Street 2020 Report.

And around one in four people (24%) would be more likely to stay longer in a town or city centre which offered access to free wi-fi, the YouGov figures show.

So the provision of free public town-centre wi-fi is a proven way to attract visitors to town centres, and encourage them to stay longer once they are there.

This is a clear business case for town teams, BIDs, local authorities and traders to implement free town wi-fi in small towns. And the data highlights a huge gap in the access to reliable internet connectivity in small towns, compared with more urbanised areas.

The digital high street index

 Digital Engagement ScoreWi-Fi ScoreBroadband Score3G Score
Major Cities201264141124
Large Towns17010111289
Small Towns164342323
Courtesy of the Great British High Street

However, there is so much more to delivering public wi-fi than plugging in the infrastructure and flicking the switch. Think of that as building a theatre which never hosts a performance.

MORE: Is Town Wi-Fi Worth It?

Creative ways to fund wi-fi

Background made of english pounds banknotes - pile of money

With a substantial investment in infrastructure needed to make town wi-fi a reality, we’ve drawn together some different funding models from around the UK.

Local business sponsorship

In December 2015, digital communications company O2 gifted St Helen’s, Liverpool free wi-fi for the town centre along with digital software and training for local businesses and residents. O2 is partnering with St Helen’s Council in a national pilot aimed at reviving high streets through technology.

Town and District Councils

South Lakeland District Council got together with Kendal Town Council to provide free town wi-fi in the Cumbrian town as part of a two-year trial. Declared a success in 2016, it’s now set to be introduced to other Cumbrian town centres including Ulverston, Ambleside, Bowness and Windermere.

BID team

Hereford BID is funding free town wi-fi and Geo-SENSE technology, currently being implemented in the Herefordshire town. This is centre stage of a rebranded digital marketing plan involving town website, text and email marketing, social media and consumer reward scheme.

Real Towns has partnered with Elephant Wifi to deliver a complete wi-fi and marketing package for towns seeking to boost tourism, footfall and business outcomes.

Government grants

Hamilton town centre in Scotland will benefit from public wi-fi thanks to an urban regeneration grant from the Scottish Government, it was announced in November 2015. Hamilton is among 21 Scottish communities enjoying a share of a £1.7 million Town Centre Community Capital Fund (TCCCF), designed to help communities deliver key capital projects.

Combination funding

Llandrindod Wells’ 2016 rollout of public wi-fi has been jointly funded by a Tesco 106 development fund and a Powys Council regeneration grant. The Love Loughborough BID team has teamed up with Leicestershire County Council to offer free town centre wifi in Loughborough, Leicestershire.


The Nottinghamshire town of Mansfield raised more than £36,000 to fund free town wi-fi through a crowdfunding platform in December 2012. Mansfield bid used, a crowdfunding platform dedicated to civic improvement.

MORE: Where To Get Funding for Community Projects

free wi-fi

How public town wi-fi has evolved

The provision of public wi-fi zones is slowly spreading, though it is still very much a network of patches and dots.

Free wi-fi is found increasingly in shops, cafes, restaurants, pubs, hotels and fast food chains, encouraging people to frequent the premises and connect to the internet on a mobile device.

There are a number of problems with this, however. You generally need to be a customer, member or subscriber to connect, and you have to signup to different wi-fi networks as you move from place to place.

Wi-fi is increasingly being offered in community centres and neighbourhood houses, offering digital inclusion to the socially disadvantaged.

Free wi-fi is now available on buses, trams and trains in nine UK cities, as of 2015, extending the rollout to millions of commuters using public transport.

As part of the Government’s £150m Superconnected Cities program, free public wi-fi has also been hooked up in more than a thousand buildings in 22 UK cities including libraries, museums, civic centres and sporting facilities.

Many UK residents are signing up to The Cloud, the UK’s largest public wi-fi network which connects more than 4 million users per week for free to around 22,000 UK hotspots. One sign up on The Cloud website offers connections at multiple venues.

So there’s a steady rise in the number of private and public free public wi-fi.

What’s missing, however, is more widespread, comprehensive internet access across and within towns and city centres, linking up these scattered hotspots into a connected whole.

The real losers in this picture are the hundreds of small British towns, many in rural areas, whose trade is suffering from poor connectivity, wi-fi ‘black holes’ and limited commercial coverage and options.

Yet towns and cities are still taking positive, ground-breaking steps in the provision of public wi-fi.

public access wi-fi

Innovations in UK town centre wi-fi

Superconnected Cities

In March 2012, the UK government selected 14 cities eligible for funding under the Superconnected Cities scheme. These included Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Bradford, Bristol, Glasgow, Leeds, Nottingham, Manchester, Sheffield and the four UK capitals – London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. All now offer free public wi-fi in their city centres.

Adding smart technology

Hinckley, Leicestershire, installed free town centre wi-fi in 2014, adding sophisticated Geo-SENSE technology which captures, stores, recalls and monitors visitor movements. An integrated digital kiosk is also planned as part of the town’s digital platform.

The first wifi pavement

Chesham, Bucks, will boast the UK’s first ‘wi-fi pavement’,  featuring access points concealed under manhole covers in the pavement and other street furniture including lamp posts.

The Virgin Media service will provide download speeds of up to 166Mbps – seven times faster than the average UK broadband speed.

Local data storage

Woking Borough Council, Surrey, installed 35 routers throughout the town centre in 2015, in their bid to turn Woking into a digital hub.

Data is stored locally rather than on an international mainframe, ensuring it will target Woking business advertising rather than be marketed nationally or internationally.

Leg up from CCTV

Free wi-fi is now available across Great Yarmouth town centre. It was made available in 2013 by piggy-backing off the Norfolk town’s new wireless CCTV system.

County-wide Wi-Fi

Free wi-fi is available in all Pembrokeshire’s main town and village centres, including key beaches, as part of a three-year pilot project beginning in 2016 – with Pembrokeshire Council believed to be the first UK local authority to offer county-wide wi-fi connectivity.

Open access wi-fi

Llandrindod Wells has become the first town in Wales to install an open access wi-fi system, Powys County Council announced in March 2016. Visitors log on to the system via a portal page on the town’s new website.

Your town’s challenge

There’s little doubt public wi-fi is a critical weapon in any town’s digital armoury.

It can be designed to boost business through increased footfall or create marketing opportunities to promote tourism and events – and much more. The technology is developing rapidly.

Consider the outcomes your town requires and the costs involved – not only in delivering the technology, but using the data it collects to engage with the audience which is using it.

Wendy Riley
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Wendy Riley

Editorial Director at Real Towns Limited
I love working with words. As a journalist, blogger, editor and award winning creative writer, I have extensive experience in British and Australian print media and now specialise in digital content. I'm excited to be part of the Real Towns team and proud of our innovative approach.
Wendy Riley
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3 comments on “The Rise And Rise of Public Wi-fi in Britain”

  • Patrick Briscoe says:

    Excellent piece Wendy. There is hope, it seems, for smaller communities to climb into the 21st Century. Let’s see which ones have the will to do it.

  • Gaynor Lewin says:

    Hello Wendy, this is a fantastic piece. So easy to read and informative. Hope you are both well.

    • Thanks Gaynor. We hope you’re tracking well in Leominster. Wi-fi is coming soon to Chipping Norton, as is another exciting digital project. Plenty to keep us focused and hopeful that our digital message is continuing to sprout wings.

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