The World is My Oyster – State of Connectivity in Europe

WiFI BusOyster Card
And, don’t worry, with modern hand luggage restrictions, I didn’t have my sword to open the oyster to extract a pearl! In fact, Oyster is a Transport For London brand for their payment system. Many here in North America feel we are at the epicentre of the technology universe and have a monopoly on great technologies empowering the connectivity behind our increasinly always on lifestyle. With a different work-life cultural balance, Europe has much to teach us about deploying state of the art technologies, especially those we might encounter in daily life. But, too, not all are absolutely without flaws. I will share a few experiences from a recent pan-European sojourn.


Although deployed for a few years, this convenient contact-less payment card, containing an RFID chip, has in the last year or so taken off to the point that it is now used by around 90% of all trips on London Underground, buses and even some National Rail services. While, in North America, we think of RFID’s use in logistics and as a more active version of all those UPC barcodes, these embedded applications may be the more fundamental ones.
How does it work? You simply pay £3 for the card, which is yours for life, and you then top it up as a pre-paid card. Oyster users pay less per trip, and, by monitoring your usage and appropriately capping charging, it also replaces a single day travelcard. Further, Oyster can also be used as a multi-day pass. You can register online so you can keep your money should your card be lost or stolen. In use, it is important to swipe both in AND out at the turnstiles, like in the photo above.

Compared with:

  • Toronto Transit Commission, which replaced its 50 year old tokens, with ones that are harder to counterfeit, or with
  • San Francisco’s BART, which uses 1980’s technology magstripe cards,

Transport For London (TFL) has taken a much bolder step in payments with their Oyster Card. It was convenient, fast, well documented, but …

What’s the Catch? Several times, I found that I got the message “See Supervisor” and would have to swipe again to make it exit. And, remember, that unless you swipe both in and out from your journey, you may find a £4 charge for a short trip, instead of the correct charge of £1.50. How this happened to me was that I swiped on exit, got the “Supervisor” message, and swiped again. The gates opened, but I found it had ended my first trip then begun a second trip, which it viewed as uncompleted, hence the £4 charge!

Like most great technologies, it comes down to intelligent software design and execution. Clearly smarter pattern recognition in the software could have removed this artefact either because of the short time between trip end and trip start or because this was an outbound turnstile, from which trips should end not commence.


Normally, I don’t travel on buses. Here in Canada, they are typically unpleasant, crowded and I’m old enough to remember when they were smoky as well. Because of a missed flight by my partner, I made one unscheduled 1 hour inter-city connection on a bus. Imagine my surprise when the price was great, there was free coffee served by a human, TVs with headphones and comfortable seats. But, most surprising of all, and I haven’t seen this anywhere else, was FREE WiFi connectivity on the buses. I was actually able to crack open my notebook and connect to the web and synchronize my email. While it did fade in and out a few times, I was totally amazed that this would even work at all. I’m still trying to figure out what technology connected the bus to the rest of the world (is it 3G wireless?), but clearly this was impressive. So, a combination of great technology, great service and comfortable buses was instructive in creating a “business class” experience in a European inter-city bus.


I was excited a few years about when FON was launched to make an open, universal WiFi Cloud. Part of the idea was for each person to “open up” their home or business routers, but in a secure way, to create a cloud in an almost open source way. And, because part of the founding energy for Spanish company FON, came from the Skype principals, it looked very promising indeed. So, I signed up in 2005 and then nothing happened.

Imagine my pleasant surprise to be in a cafe in Munich, called News Bar, and to see the familiar FON logo. Furthermore, after having paid €3 per hour at a previous cafe hotspot (not to mention £4 per hour in London!), it was great that this cost only €3 per day. What is more, I logged in at 2 other cafes that day, all using FON and all for that same €3 charge in the first hotspot. Although the FON business model includes a revenue share with the hotspot owners, they will not get rich from the proceeds. It was great to see the high level of FON penetration in Munich, and London appears to be following along. I can only hope that Waterloo and Toronto will wake up to this movement to create an open source cloud, as well.


Perhaps WiFi will become less important as 3G technology, in particular HSDPA with around 3.6 Mbps download speeds, becomes pervasive. Having started rollouts in 2003 in UK and Italy, Europe has about a 5 year head start on North America. Few will realize that Rogers has been staging a rollout of HSDPA into major Canadian cities over the last year and, similarly for AT&T across the US.

Enroute back to Toronto, I was in the Air Canada Maple Leaf lounge, struggling, like everyone else, to connect to their WiFi network, when I noticed one Swedish laptop user was productively downloading, surfing and emailing. His secret? His 3G PC card. Now, of course Europe insn’t a total 3G data utopia. I suspect it will be a year or more before international roaming in 3G data becomes more reasonably priced (read not extortionate) and, for those of use who aren’t residents and rely on prepaid cards, unlimited prepaid data tariffs become available. However, hope is on the horizon – my colleague, Alec Saunders, at World Mobile Congress in Barcelona, used Yoigo for an amazing €1.50 per day, on a prepaid basis. How long can it be that such a great concept will propagate from Spain to the rest of Europe, and perhaps the rest of the world?