Back in the heady days of my diary, my friends and I have moved out of university accommodation and are living in a rented house a mile or two away from the campus. We chose it because it was cheap at £11 a month each and provided a roof and running water. The fact that at least some of this water ran steadily through the ceiling into my bedroom and that slugs crawled all over the living room furniture every night doesn’t seem to have entered our thinking.
Twenty-eight years on, my eldest daughter is looking at prospective universities and I’m quickly discovering that the list of student accommodation must-haves has lengthened considerably. An absolute given is something that was barely dreamt of when I was a student – Wi-Fi. Accessing books, films, games, the library, lecture notes and even friends and family used to require effort, planning, movement and often (horror of horrors!) physically relocating yourself miles away from your current position. Now, the same activities are available from your student room at the touch of a tablet, in a way that feels eerily like the world in E. M. Forster’s haunting short story, ‘The Machine Stops.’
Wi-Fi has quickly become one of those attributes that somehow makes a place seem more desirable. Its rise has been so meteoric that it’s fast approaching the status of utility rather than luxury – an upstart must-have without the historic gravitas of water, heating and lighting, but part of a new breed of suddenly essential services, like its sibling mobile telephony. Wi-Fi lets you feel at home even when you’re on the move, to remain together even while you’re apart.
‘Does it have Wi-Fi?’ is the connected generation’s ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ It’s a question asked of everything from shopping centres and trains to pubs and holiday destinations. High streets are awash with individual networks, with retailers banking on the fact that data-starved users on less reliable or more expensive mobile connections will crawl to the nearest hotspot like thirsty explorers to a desert oasis.
The idea that Wi-Fi adds a certain something to a location isn’t new. As long ago as 2004, realistic plans were being drawn up for whole towns and cities to offer free, municipal networks. Despite the fact that many of these early projects failed (through a combination of cost, practicality, technical hitches and competition from the big mobile networks), optimism over city-wide Wi-Fi persists – embodied in big projects like the UK government’s super-connected cities initiative.
Whichever university my daughter ends up in, I’m pretty sure that ‘how do you connect to the Wi-Fi’ will almost certainly be one of the first questions she puts her hand up to ask.