Over the past few weeks, I've been pleasantly surprised to find that when travelling on the London Underground, I can still connect to the Virgin Media wi-fi network across 72 connected stations. The surprise is not that I can connect despite a patchy and intermittent service; far from it. In fact, I've found it so good that I'm almost encouraged to take a desk down to King's Cross station.
I'm surprised because there's been a long-standing intention to turn off the tap for non-Virgin Media customers; the idea was that it would be free for London's summer of sport, but thereafter we'd have to pay.
As yet, in mid-October, I've still to see any evidence that this is the case, though a spokesman for Virgin Media was making noises about this as recently as 26 September, and I even found a statement that declares: 'Since the end of sporting events, full free access has been restricted.' This was news to me, given I read that article using the wi-fi on the southbound Victoria Line platform at Oxford Circus.
Whether the paywall goes up next week, next month or next year, I thought it was worth thinking about the feasibility of charging for wi-fi in 2012. In London, we're not short of wi-fi connections, but the Virgin Underground service manages to tick all the major boxes of what you want from such an offering.
There are roughly four things that people want from wi-fi, and the service meets those in spades: it is fast, stable and simple to connect to; but only for the moment does it meet the fourth thing people expect - that it should be free.
Why is free so important? Just think about the number of other places that will give you free wi-fi because they're selling you something else (coffee, clothes, haircuts, burgers, newspapers ...) and the list grows and grows. Moreover, a lot of those places are the ones you'll stop into on the way to and from other things.
Take, for example, Costa Coffee's very explicit wi-fi proposition at the moment: 'Free wi-fi. Right here. Right now. No passwords. No usernames. Just free, fast, reliable internet connection.'
Costa Coffee is not alone. The public perception is that wi-fi in a public space, provided by a business or a brand, will be free. I can't see Virgin Media fighting the gravitational pull of that belief, even with such a robust service across the Underground.
WI-FI ON TAP
I've been lucky enough to fly out to Oslo a couple of times in the past year with this carrier, and was delighted to find that for the whole flight there was free wi-fi. It's setting the pace for European airlines.
Starbucks and BT Openzone
Back when the first iteration of the Starbucks and BT Openzone partnership arrived, there was a convoluted system where you had to tie your Starbucks card to the wi-fi account, and keep a minimum amount of £5 on it ... it's since moved to a completely free model.
My local barber
Let's be honest, when Esquires in Lewes realises it's a good idea to offer free wi-fi to customers, it has definitely become the market-standard approach.
John V Willshire is the founder of Smithery, an innovation works for marketing and product development. Follow him on Twitter @willsh or at smithery.co/blog
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk