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Huge growth in high street wi-fi is making free mobile broadband the norm.

The huge take-up of mobile broadband dongles and laptops embedded with 3G connectivity is making it harder for businesses to charge for Wi-Fi access, with the news that Pret A Manger is now offering free Wi-Fi access in around 90 per cent of its branches.

Pret A Manger, which has teamed up with The Cloud to offer the service, joins its parent company McDonalds and rival Coffee Republic in offering unrestricted Wi-Fi access to customers who make a purchase in the store. The service is available now in 170 of the company’s 190 outlets across the UK.

The announcement has been greeted in some quarters as a return to the prospect of widespread free Wi-Fi in restaurants and coffee vendors, after other chains had been offering the service for an extra charge. Customers at Starbucks (which runs a service in conjunction with T-Mobile) and Caffé Nero pay up to £5 per hour for access to the internet.

Pret A Manger’s move is the clearest sign yet that the mass take-up of cheaper mobile broadband deals is forcing companies to rethink their policies regarding internet access charges, with customers who have become accustomed to cheap and fast internet access on the move now likely to resent paying high charges. The extent to which the consumer mobile broadband sector has grown was demonstrated in a report from Ofcom issued earlier this year, which found that the number of dongles sold nearly doubled between February and June this year - from 69,000 per month to 133,000 per month. This surge in take-up saw the number of new mobile broadband connections rise by 511,000 in less than six months.

Since then mobile broadband deals have become even more affordable, thus making high charges even more untenable in months to come. Most of the UK’s mobile networks now offer a PAYG dongle for under £50, after widespread price-slashing throughout the year. O2 in particular has seen demand skyrocket after recently cutting the price of its dongle to a market-leading £29. Charges for O2’s PAYG service - one day’s access is priced at just £2 for 500MB - make the £5 per hour charged by the likes of Caffe Nero look exorbitant in comparison. A week’s access from O2, meanwhile, is £7.50, while 30 days of usage is priced at £15

This view was espoused by Ian Fogg, principal analyst at Forrester research, who was firmly of the opinion that the days of expensive Wi-Fi are now numbered. He told the Times: “Now you can get cheap deals for mobile broadband it has made it very hard to charge for Wi-Fi in cafes.” His sentiments were echoed by Fernando Elizalde, an analyst at Gartner who noted that “somebody will have to pay for [mobile internet access] but it is becoming less likely to be the end user.”

News of the huge impact that the popularity of dongles is having on cafés’ business plans follows indications that it is also transforming the way we access the internet at home. Ofcom’s report found that 75 per cent of all home mobile broadband users now use their mobile broadband dongle to connect to the internet, instead of their landline.

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