It was news to me that they gave out awards for such things, but with so many establishments having twigged that we’re as likely to be tempted inside by the wi-fi as by the food and drink, it’s become a jungle out there.
With that in mind, a software company called Devicescape (not heard of them? me neither) conducted a survey and concluded that you’re most likely to establish a secure connection to the internet while standing in the lunch queue at Greggs.
I’m as partial to a steak bake as the next person, but Greggs doesn’t strike me as the sort of place in which you want to hang around, browsing the internet.
Nor do M&S, Boots or Asda, which also made the top five. You want to get your shopping and get out.
Coffee houses, on the other hand, offer a convivial atmosphere in which to sit and surf. In this category, Starbucks – where the wi-fi instructions are somewhat easier to understand than the menu – is judged to be less well connected than Café Nero.
No retailer offers internet access without expecting something in return, and that something (as well as your custom) is data. You’ll have noticed that in order to get online in any of these places, you must enter your email address and answer a few questions about yourself. The information can then be used to send you what we may politely term marketing material.
You can circumvent this by entering a fictitious email address ([email protected] is a good one); I’ve never come across a gateway yet that bothers to check. But even so, by the time you’ve done it, your food’s probably ready.
What’s more, these networks are relatively insecure. You should never log on to your bank account, for instance, while using one.
And in an age of near-universal mobile access, they raise the question: do you still need free wi-fi anyway?
The answer depends on the mobile tariff you’re on – but if your phone company has squeezed your monthly data allowance to the point where you need to lurk outside Greggs, it’s probably time to renegotiate.
You might be surprised at the results. Virgin Mobile, for instance, offers many more options for existing users who wish to change tariff than they make available to new customers. If your phone is already paid for, they will give you unlimited data and texts (though only 100 minutes of voice time) for just £10 a month.
This is ironic, since Virgin customers fare among the best when it comes to wi-fi – they can connect to 22,000 otherwise paid-for hotspots operated by The Cloud.
If you’re not with Virgin and if you’re outside your minimum contract, it’s always worth ringing your customer services department and asking for a Porting Authorisation Code (PAC) to transfer your number to another network. Eight times out of ten they’ll offer you a better deal to stay.