OK -- so we all know the days of needing to save 10 pence to call home are long gone. I can still remember the days of calling for a lift with a 2-pence coin and giving it three "pips" before hanging up so I wouldn't waste two "penny sweets" worth of coin. But after a walk down memory lane, I'm sure we all agree there is pretty much no need for phone boxes any more. Just about everyone has a mobile phone. It's a sad demise for a British icon, but there you have it.
I can't help but wonder, however, have they got it right? These new street furniture designs are basically digital outdoor, via a pair of 55" HD screens, with the promise of ultra-fast WiFi thrown in to whet the appetite. Now, free WiFi -- let's have a pause. Does anyone actually want it or need it in London? I'm not so sure. If I'm sitting in a Costa and BT logs in me in to their WiFi, that's all well and good. But that's only useful when sitting down for 20 minutes or so. It may just be me, but i'm inherently suspicious of giving my details at airports and the like for free WiFi. I know i'm going to be spammed and am unlikely to get a speed anywhere near the 3G or 4G I would otherwise get. I have to be honest -- when my email has been hacked, I've blamed logging in at a free WiFi hot spot the day before. I don't know for sure, but it's my firm suspicion.
What's more, free WiFi is actually pretty annoying when you're on the move. How often have you tried to do something on a smartphone only to be constantly interrupted by a message to select from a number of WiFi networks, most of which are locked anyway. It's just plain annoying to have to dismiss a page that keeps appearing on your home screen until you do what everyone else does and switches WiFi off and carry on enjoying far faster 4G without a care in the world.
Some of the places LinkUK may roll out to -- there are plays for 750 locations within five years -- may well not have 4G, so the service will obviously be of more use there. However, more useful than 3G? I'm not so sure. The use case rolled out at launch was that people in New York, which already uses the technology, can download a movie on the street within a minute. That's all well and good, but I'm not too sure that's compelling enough for people to stand by an outdoor ad, log in to WiFi and then wait around for a minute or two to get a blockbuster on their phone.
I'm wondering whether a more useful service would be for the screens to offer detailed local information and to be an AI concierge. I can definitely see visitors to London want to book tickets to events and attractions and maybe have a day planned out for them with their itinerary bluetoothed to their device? Perhaps with direction to nearby Santander bikes (aka "Boris bikes") and a reservation at a great restaurant of bar. Maybe advertisers will have some fun and games getting people to become involved in outdoor ads. I can definitely see that happening.
So don't get me wrong. I adore digital outdoor and I guess you could say the addition of free WiFi is a cheery on the cake for those who want it. I simply don't see WiFi in a 4G area as a bonus, though, to be honest. If I were BT I would be positioning this far more around a concierge service that follows you around town, always ready to help out. The connection should be about empowering fast interaction with useful information rather than providing a connection that just about everyone already has.
To underscore how wrong I think they have got the positioning, there's also talk of using the kiosks to charge phones. Really? Who'd going to hang around for an hour next to an advertising screen for some juice? No, this is about a service that delights, not WiFi and a plug which are not nearly as useful as BT thinks they are.