BT's Wi-Fi adventure snubs 3G

Three new partners for Openzone as BT sets its sights on 802.11a and 802.11g and claims that Wi-Fi is a better and cheaper service than 3G

BT announced on Wednesday that it has made deals with BAA, Welcome Break and Hilton that should help it to reach its target of 400 Wi-Fi hot spots by this summer, and 4,000 by June 2005, as it aims to dominate Britain's commercial Wi-Fi market.

The tie-up with BAA will see BT Openzone set up hot spots at Heathrow Terminal One, Gatwick, Stansted and Aberdeen airports, with Gatwick's wireless network due to launch on Wednesday afternoon. A total of 27 Welcome Break service stations will also get Openzone hot spots, with two -- Corley and South Mimms -- already active.

Thirty-six Hilton hotels already have hot spots, and another 15 should come online "in the near future".

According to BT, these deals -- which follow similar agreements with Costa Coffee and the Jarvis and Thistle hotel groups -- will help it to target its service at businesspeople on the move.

"Our strategy for rollout is based around where the road warrior stops," said David Hughes, BT director of mobility, said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Hughes also revealed that BT Openzone had recently added its one-thousandth user, and had signed up 45 major companies, including the BBC, Intel, IBM, Microsoft and Toshiba, as corporate customers.

"This is no pipedream, this is an operational service with a large, high-value customer base established as we move forward," Hughes insisted.

BT's target for 2003, Hughes explained, is to begin targeting SMEs and professionals, as well as large corporations. It also hopes to sign up many more partners, and expects to make its service available at railway stations -- a move already taken by Megabeam, Openzone's main rival.

Hughes also welcomed the government's decision to deregulate the 5GHz spectrum, which will make it legal for an operator such as Openzone to run a commercial hot spot using 802.11a. Currently, Openzone's hot spots use 802.11b and run at 2.4GHz.

"We're certainly planning to introduce hot spots based on 802.11a, and 802.11g, when we see demand," said Hughes, adding that 802.11a was a "fantastically powerful technology."

Hughes showed less enthusiasm for 3G, though, and claimed that Openzone's Wi-Fi offered a better service at a cheaper price.

According to Hughes, it costs an Openzone customer less than 5p to download 1MB of data. In contrast, it would cost a 3G user 50p, said Hughes, citing recent figures from a mobile operator. This operation would only take 30 seconds over Wi-Fi, but two minutes over 3G, Hughes added.

"At the moment, it looks like Wi-Fi is one-tenth of the price of 3G, and four times as fast," said Hughes.

BT's official line on the 3G vs Wi-Fi debate, though, is that Wi-Fi will work out at half the cost of 3G, and three times as fast, and the company also admits that the disadvantage with hot spots is that they only offer limited coverage.

"With Wi-Fi, you get high-speed data access at a hot spot, while 3G gives you low to medium connection speeds ubiquitously," Hughes explained.

To combat Wi-Fi's limited range, BT hopes to agree a roaming deal with a GPRS operator, as ZDNet UK reported in October 2002.

Visit ZDNet UK's Wi-Fi hot spot map to see full details of pricing and rollout for all the UK's Wi-Fi operators.


Discover the latest developments in Wi-Fi, 3G, GPRS and other cutting-edge wireless technologies at ZDNet UK's Wireless News Section.

Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom.