BACKGROUND

I’m an O2 iPhone customer, who happens to have free ‘unlimited’ WiFi bundled with my contract.  In theory, this means I can help O2 by letting their affiliated WiFi providers take some of the data strain as I wander around London navigating, browsing, status-updating, twitter-feeding or even knocking out some emails while I’m waiting for something to happen somewhere in meatspace. In my experience so far, BT Openzone has had more wifi hotspots than the other affiliated providers, so while waiting for a train one morning I attempted to log into one of the access points in Charing Cross.  Once logged in, the theory is that the phone remembers the network name and attaches to it whenever it finds it. There are problems however that BT/Apple/O2 really need to fix if they hope to maintain the best user (customer) experience.

PROBLEMS

  1. Logging in for the first time. With both iPhones I’ve had to call O2 to have them re-send my details to BT to have it added to the list of authorised users.  I had to wait an hour or two for this update to take effect. I then had to log into the base station, which required me to switch the WiFi to BT Openzone, then attempt to load a web page in Safari. If I tried to check my email or Facebook app, nothing happened except an error message after some minutes informing me that I had no connection to the Internet.  FYI, despite my technical background, knowledge and experience, I would argue that really the only thing that separates me from ‘normal’ users is my cantankerous determination to make my chosen products and devices behave as (or better than) advertised. I’m all too regularly disappointed by how much of my time and effort most products and services take to be coaxed into even the most basic levels of ‘does what it says on the tin’. This little exercise has been no exception.
  2. Network name confusion. When is a BT Openzone not a BT Openzone? When you’re at an airport, rail station or any other area with a captive audience, where the service is actually charged at a higher rate, regardless of whether one is an existing member or not.  Or even just because the owner of the building says so. It’s not just about me being a cheapskate. These stations exist in other areas too. If memory serves, BT Business users have the option built-in to their 2-Wire routers to use a limited amount of their ADSL bandwidth to create a secondary (chargeable) WiFi network for their staff, customers or visitors. In use this advertises itself as an Openzone site, but is excluded from the unlimited WiFi deal given to O2. Confusion reigns.
  3. Connection failures. Many of the base stations just plain don’t work. Either the logon process is borked or there’s no connection between the base station and the Internet.  We customers don’t often know where the boxes actually are, so we don’t know how to complain (or to whom we should) to get them fixed.  The result of this is that when walking through an unfamiliar part of London, iPhone users who sign up to the service even just once end up not being able to see or interact with anything requiring Internet connectivity until the WiFi features of their phone are turned off. That means no email updates. No navigation by the built-in Google Maps app. Nice.

SOLUTIONS

  • BT could rename the second tier Openzone charged service base stations, separating their Openzone brand from the allegedly ‘premier’ service. That way it’s clear from the network name that the base station is different, and may be charged differently.
  • BT certainly need to up their game with regards to maintaining their base stations.
  • O2 could renegotiate their terms such that all BT Openzone hotspots are covered, including those at Airports and other prime locations.
  • Apple could make their network stack switch more quickly back to the mobile network if the phone is unable to ping to one of their servers because WiFi is not working, not logged in etc.
  • Alternatively, Apple could provide a home-screen app or shortcut, toggling the WiFi capability on or off. Even on the multitasking iPhone 4 hardware and OS, it’s a bit of a chore to get to the settings menu and flip the WiFi switch.

In all cases, those designing, building, maintaining or selling such systems need to be using them, regularly and as designed, so they know the customer experience for themselves. No hacks, no workarounds, no inside knowledge. Exactly as the customer would be instructed. Then we will make progress.

Meanwhile, next time I’m near an Openzone network I’ll be telling my iPhone to ‘forget this network’. It’s a nice idea to be able to switch to WiFi and only use the mobile network when faster connections are not available, but as of right now it’s just not worth the hassle to the end user.

Or perhaps I’m the only one trying to use an iPhone to find my bearings when i’m out and about?