People expect to be hooked up to the internet at all times, wherever they are, thanks to the prevalence of smartphones and tablet computers. But Swiss towns, hotels and public transport still have some work to do to offer the connections users want.
An early morning walk down Fribourg’s main commercial drag. On the way, you can meet in the space of a few minutes a Texas Ranger with a date at the Coliseum, an action hero looking to infinity and beyond, oh, and a French porn star.
Don’t think about getting any autographs though. These are just a few of the names that show up on the multitude of wireless networks that are functioning at any time – anywhere between ten and 30. Just don’t expect to get a free connection.
Despite the inane names some people choose for their Wi-Fi system, they aren’t willing to give you access.
In Fribourg, your best chance of getting a free connection for your smartphone or tablet is lurking outside a well-known coffee shop or heading into a shopping centre. The situation is much the same in the capital Bern, which, despite being much bigger than its southern neighbour, only has a few free access points.
Which leaves users with little choice but to subscribe to an often expensive data plan with one of the country’s big three telecommunications operators to make up for the gaping holes in free coverage.
Geneva is one place internet users haven’t been left out to dry. Since 2004, public Wi-Fi access has been on tap, with around 70 official hotspots now scattered across the city, complementing a series set up by the non-profit GEspot association.
Still the city needed some convincing to build up its own network of connection points. GEspot launched in 1999 on the sidelines of the Telecom fair, when Wi-Fi was beginning to appear.
According to Charly Schwarz, one of the initiators, the idea was to share Wi-Fi access between neighbours given its relatively high cost at the time. “The initial project was really to create a community rather than a formal network,” he told swissinfo.ch.
Its development was, says Schwarz, enough over time to convince the city, home of the UN’s International Telecommunications Union, to provide free access of its own.
Back in Fribourg, the lack of public access Wi-Fi has taken a political turn. The centre-right young Christian Democrats successfully launched an initiative demanding free internet connections in the canton’s main centres.
“It’s a compromise solution,” says Pierre Kilchemann, one of the Fri-Netz initiative’s backers. “It’s a minimum, but there is nothing to stop the authorities proposing more.”
The initiative calls for free-access Wi-Fi in towns where a lot of people gather. The Fri-Netz team has suggested these would be in areas close to railway stations in just seven towns.
“The idea is to provide minimal access, so people can check their e-mails for example,” adds Kilchemann. “It would also guarantee a form of access to everyone since many people cannot afford an internet connection of their own.”
The cantonal government has rejected the initiative, betting on the introduction of a new fibre-optic network, in which it has an indirect interest via the local power company, to boost the impact of the internet on everyday life for most citizens.
Kilchemann says though that the government has misunderstood the aims of Fri-Netz by pitching it squarely against the fibre-optic project.
“The proposed Wi-Fi access does not aim to propose as much bandwidth nor should it be considered a long-term project like the fibre network with all the inherent costs,” he points out.
The government response has also been considered unsatisfactory for a parliamentary commission, which has asked the authorities to come up with a more satisfactory counterproposal.
However, Schwarz says this approach could become a moot point for locals as access via mobile phone subscriptions becomes cheaper and more common.
On the road
Free Wi-Fi on the road is also slowly being developed.
Switzerland’s main bus network, owned by Swiss Post, now offers free Wi-Fi access on 70 per cent of its vehicles, a decision that has been successful according to the PostBus subsidiary especially with young people.
The buses use a 3G telephone relay to connect with the internet.
The Swiss Federal Railways has also begun to address the problem of internet access in its 100 busiest stations.
It will offer travellers free high-speed wireless internet access, with project completion expected by the end of 2015.
But the company has already warned that while connections will be free, there will be a time limit that has not been set so far.
Trains on the country’s main lines will also be all equipped with improved internet access by the end of 2014, boosted by the expansion of the telecommunications operators’ own mobile network.
Tourists are one group Kilchenmann and Schwarz agree could benefit from free access to Wi-Fi networks to download maps or to find information about sights of interest, and avoid high international roaming charges.
Cities like Lucerne and Lausanne have taken the plunge. Lucerne, a major tourist destination, offers for example blanket coverage in much of the old town and adjacent areas, as well as at the nearby transport museum, while Lausanne has access only in few zones.
Lugano in the southern canton of Ticino and which also attracts large numbers of tourists, also proposes free Wi-Fi along the lakeshore.
Zurich, the country’s biggest city, is still debating whether to introduce free Wi-Fi. Turned off by the potential cost, estimated at around CHF15 million ($15.8 million) and the need to install 2,000 antennae for blanket coverage, the authorities will most likely not set up a special network.
Far from home, with little time to go looking for an elusive connection, the best most travellers can often hope for is an access point at their hotel.
Encouraged by Switzerland Tourism, some hotel managers have realised there is an advantage in offering such a service, as tourists and business travellers now consider internet access an interesting bonus when booking a stay.
“The main point is that travellers should see this access as part of the benefits they get for paying for a room,” explains Switzerland Tourism spokeswoman Véronique Kanel. “Clients don’t want to be charged extra on their bill for it.”
While Wi-Fi access is becoming more common in Swiss hotels according to the marketing body, many establishments are often failing though to use it as a selling point. Switzerland Tourism has added Wi-Fi to its main search criteria for hotels on its website, but so far only around ten per cent of the referenced establishments are flagged up as having this access.
Kanel adds that with many bars and restaurants providing Wi-Fi, this is less of a problem than it might seem.
“Wireless access can be an added value, but it depends where it is needed,” she told swissinfo.ch. “It’s not necessarily a must in a mountain hut, but it makes more sense to have it in towns.”
But in the meantime, getting free access to the web remains more akin to a treasure hunt than to the simple gesture of switching on your phone.