There's a new wireless hotspot provider in town - and while the service it provides is, on the face of it, pretty much the same as that of existing providers, it's aimed at a so-far ignored collection of users.
Until now, the tariffs of all today's hotspot providers have prodded their customers in the direction of signing monthly paid contracts for Wi-Fi service. To do otherwise, unless you are a very occasional user or have very fixed patterns of travel is to pay considerably over the odds on a per-minute basis.
For example, BT Openzone's most expensive tariff is 20p per minute, bought by the minute. Few would use this if they could avoid it. The other three non-subscription tariffs, sold as vouchers, offer wireless connectivity at £6 for an hour, unlimited minutes over a 24-hour period, or 4,000 minutes within a 30-day period. The alternatives are subscriptions, which on the face of it look attractive, with the cheapest offering connectivity at 1.6p per minute - unless you're a BT broadband customer, in which case it costs 1p per minute.
However, if you move around, you're likely to find places where BT Openzone doesn't work. What's more, the subscriptions don't cover non-UK usage - in which case the price rockets to 10p per minute. And if you're not a heavy user with a contract but find yourself in need of a connection to download some emails and check the Web for 15 to 30 minutes, you waste the rest of time you buy with a one-hour voucher unless you use it up within a certain time limit. These restrictions all make vouchers less than attractive options for many, while a subscription can be overkill, especially if you don't know where you'll connect next and therefore whose hotspot you'll be linking to.
Other providers offer similar restrictions via their tariffing structures.
Filling the gap
Divine Wireless aims to fill the gap between the very occasional user and those for whom a subscription makes sense.
Set up by CEO Guy Rosenhoiz, previously a manager at both Carphone Warehouse and O2, and claiming to be the first of its kind, the company allows users to connect to over 15,000 hotspots - about 90 per cent of the total. It resells wireless hotspot coverage from BT Openzone, The Cloud and SurfnSip, with others said to be in the pipeline. It has hotspots in the rest of Europe too.
The service costs 8p per minute or £4.80 per hour, which is only slightly cheaper than BT's one-hour voucher. Divine's advantage however is that charges are calculated per minute so users pay only for time they use. There's no minimum fee and you don't have to burn unused minutes within a given timespan - they never expire.
It's a bit like the difference between a buying a return flight from either BA or EasyJet: the former presents potential customers with complex pricing choices depending on a number of metrics such as length of stay and time of return, while the latter just offers a single price.
According to Rosenhoiz, the business model is simple. "We buy minutes from BT Openzone and others, which they're happy to sell as it's incremental business for them, even though it take a year to negotiate the deal with the likes of BT and T-Mobile. They took a lot of convincing."
Getting providers on board
The biggest problem, he said, was getting the providers to understand they need to collaborate to attract more traffic by enabling people to move around and increase ARPU. "We're capturing a target audience they do not, as they are too restrictive", he said. "We reckon our target market consists of about two million users."
Rosenhoiz said that customers can pay using multiple methods, including vouchers bought from centres such as hotels, credit cards, via SMS, or even airline miles. "We provide customer support from anywhere, and you can always get to our site through the hotspot proxies", he said.
Vouchers for Divine's service are available at high street retailers. According to Rozenhoiz, you can also find laptops being sold by Dell that include Divine Wireless minutes and a free account. All new customers will have Divine software pre-installed on their new laptops and have 60 free minutes on the service, said Dell.
So does it work? You first download and install an applet that counts the minutes after it connects, and via which you can access your account online. We tried it out and found no hotspots in central London during our trial that didn't include a link to allow you to connect using Divine's system.
We found it simple to use and, though not cheap, ideal for occasional access when you have no idea where you'll be or whose hotspot you'll be accessing next. And while our trial was limited so far to a small geographical area, with the major hotspot providers partnered with Divine, the odds of not being able to connect appear slim.
This seems like a rare innovation in the world of wireless provision: offering customers just what they want.