30 September 2010

The removal of 'free'

We've said before that the worst thing a company or government can do is to give people something for nothing. Not the kind advertised rather dubiously during commercial breaks on daytime TV, but a tangible freebie. The National Concessionary Bus Pass Scheme was one such deal. Cynics say that over-sixties pay for the free rides indirectly through their council tax, but the council tax charge did not rise by the identical sum per week that Mr & Mrs Taylor had hitherto spent on buses, so it's a psychological red herring.

Free Wi-Fi is something else that's slowly being unleashed upon the world. Most pubs have it. Buses even have it. Coaches have had it for ages. Planes don't, for obvious reasons, and roaming restrictions mean it's very tricky indeed for it to be available on boats and ships. Even London Underground aspires to have it (they have advanced plans to enable people to use their mobile phones at, say, Warren Street station soon).

Trains have had Wireless Fidelity available to passengers for a number of years. Many long-distance TOCs provide it free in First Class and ask those in Standard to pay for it. There is one exception: East Coast. Wi-Fi used to be chargeable in Standard Class, but one of the first moves made by National Express East Coast saw it become free to all. M'colleague and I have made many a trip aboard NXEC and now East Coast using their free Wi-Fi. Neither of us has a laptop, but connect through the wireless gizmo featured on our mobile phones.

We bring you news that as from next week, Standard Class travellers will only receive the first fifteen minutes' worth of Wi-Fi for free aboard East Coast trains, thereafter an hourly fee of £4.95 will be charged, capped at £9.95 per day. This really is a very poor decision - especially at a time when whatever savings likely to be made are to go on providing free meals in First. Clearly, those in charge at East Coast have made the conscious decision that to woe back First Class travellers at the expense of Standard is the way forward, and are now instigating a number of measures to ensure this objective is achieved.

East Coast's official explanation is that it has recently spent £600k improving its Wi-Fi technology, enabling faster download speeds. If only they'd asked their passengers whether they'd like to see this investment for improved speeds and then to be charged a tenner a day or to keep things the way they were, we strongly suspect the response would have ensured that this bad news story would never have happened. A serious point to consider for those wanting to make use of the first 15 minutes is whether they will be warned when they are soon to incur the hourly fee or if it will be down to them to make sure they do not surf for longer than 14:59.

Virgin Trains, the other Anglo-Scottish operator, has never permitted free Wi-Fi for Standard, only in First. You can't take from someone what they've never had, so Richard Branson's train HQ in Euston will almost certainly be smirking not only at the lamentable decision East Coast has made, but also at how the government-run TOC is effectively bringing itself into line with their service provision. The two companies have had many a SPAD ('spat', surely? - Ed.) in the past but now it could be East Coast will be operated in a similar fashion to its public sector West Coast counterpart.

If East Coast thinks the ensuing criticism over the removal of free Wi-Fi is likely to be a bit rough, its financial backers ought to take note of the Doomsday scenario like to play itself out come the Spending Review if a decision is taken to start charging those over 60 to use local bus services.

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