Tens of thousands of BT's public phone boxes could become Wi-Fi hot spots over the next few years, giving the telco's Openzone service a much larger presence across the UK.
The telco announced on Monday that it is aiming to install BT Openzone access points in at least 200 of its payphones by this Christmas. All 200 of these sites are BT Internet kiosks -- which let users surf the web and send text messages. They are all sited in areas where there is a large concentration of people, and could be the prelude for a much wider rollout across the BT payphone network.
"We're in the process of rolling out 20,000 Internet kiosks and, unless a particular site is in a poor location, we could offer Wi-Fi from all of them," a BT spokesman told ZDNet UK.
BT is confident that standard phone boxes can also be upgraded to Wi-Fi, and is proving this by also Wi-Fi-enabling one of its classic red phone boxes, at Covent Garden.
BT owns 108,000 payphones across the UK. If a substantial proportion of these were turned into hot spots -- which BT says would not be technically difficult -- then it would massively increase the number of places where laptop and PDA users could get a high-speed Web connection.
The technology behind most Wi-Fi hot spots, 802.11b, can work over 100 metres or more, so that users could sit in a bar, restaurant or park, and connect to the nearest phone box.
Vandalism has been a problem with phone boxes in the past, with nefarious individuals stealing or destroying telephone directories or even the payphone itself. BT has addressed this issue, and has attempted to make it as difficult as possible for vandals to damage Wi-Fi access points within phone boxes.
BT Openzone is aiming to have at least 4,000 hot spots in operation by next summer -- a target it seems certain to reach through its alliance with Wi-Fi wholesale operator The Cloud, which last week signed up another 7,000 sites.
BT has also negotiated a deal where any user who buys a Centrino-powered laptop from Dell will receive a free three-month subscription to BT Openzone, and the chance to buy a 12-month subscription for half price.