A free metropolitan Wi-Fi network has been launched in London, continuing the gradual trend towards free public wireless access in Europe and the US.
The free-hotspot.com group and Wi-Fi network infrastructure firm MeshHopper have joined forces to offer free Wi-Fi access to businesses and the public along a 22km stretch of the River Thames.
MeshHopper is the company behind the paid-for Thames Online Wi-Fi network, which went fully commercial last year and which covers the same stretch of the river, from Millbank in central London to Greenwich in south-east London.
The free network, which has been branded as "online-4-free.com", gives users free access if they agree to view a 15 to 30 second advert every 15 minutes. If users don't want to view the adverts, they are charged one of a range of tariffs, including £2.95 per hour or £9.95 a month.
The free service operates with modest download speeds of 256Kbps. The paid-for services operate at a faster 500Kbps.
Free-hotspot.com has set up 1,500 smaller networks in buildings and open spaces around Europe, but the Thames service is by far its biggest network. "This really marks the arrival of free Wi-Fi in Greater London," said Dan Toomey, chief executive of free-hotspot.com. "Millions of Londoners, as well as commuters, visitors and tourists, can now expect to find free Wi-Fi as they work or play along the Thames."
The network will be extended to 36km by August.
The online-4-free.com service follows the launch in summer 2006 of a free city-wide Wi-Fi network in Norwich, which is supported by the local council to help generate inward investment.
It is understood that a free network will be launched in August in Manchester city centre, in direct competition with a paid-for network built by BT.
Paris is currently building a free city-wide Wi-Fi network in partnership with Alcatel-Lucent and mobile operator SFR. This network will be offered to both citizens and visitors to the French capital.
BT has built a number of city-wide Wi-Fi networks up and down the UK in partnership with local councils, and the City of London has backed a similar network for the financial community in partnership with operator The Cloud, but all these networks charge for access.
An increasing number of US towns and cities offer free or subsidised Wi-Fi access, including San Francisco, Philadelphia, Raleigh and Mountain View.