Government clears way for public Wi-Fi hot spots

Changes to wireless regulations mean that Internet service providers can now offer wireless Web surfing in airports and coffee shops

The government moved on Monday to end commercial restrictions on the deployment of wireless local-area networks (WLANs), opening the door to the introduction of wireless Internet access "hot spots" around the country.

The move by the recently appointed e-Commerce Minister, Stephen Timms, follows a four-month consultation by the Radiocommunications Agency that ended in mid-February, having received 54 responses. Timms said that regulations would be changed to allow the commercial use of the 2.4GHz part of the radio spectrum without a Wireless Telegraphy Act licence.

The 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands are part of the ISM (Instrumentation, Scientific and Medical) spectrum band. In the UK, it is possible to transmit within the ISM band without a licence as long as this is not done for commercial purposes -- so firms are currently prevented from using the 802.11b wireless networking technology as a way of selling Internet connectivity. The technology is also known as Wi-Fi.

As 802.11b will support data transfers in the region of 5.5 megabits per second (mbps), some analysts have suggested it could be a cheap and effective alternative to 3G.

Other technologies also operate at 2.4GHz, including Bluetooth, but analysts believe that 802.11b would have the greatest commercial potential. It is increasingly being employed within home networking solutions in the UK, where it allows a number of PCs and laptops to be connected to a broadband Internet connection.

The most immediate effect of the regulatory changes, set to go into effect on 31 July, will be to allow Internet service providers to set up hot spots in public areas such as airports and coffee shops, through which anyone with a Wi-Fi-enabled computer will be able to get online. Such hot spots are already popular in the US.

"It is vital that we give the resources to businesses to create and deliver such services to benefit the public, to make the best use of spectrum, and make sure they can continue to compete in a global market place," said Timms in a statement.

BT said on Tuesday that it will move quickly to install a nationwide network of Wi-Fi hot spots, a plan announced in April. "BT is already talking to a number of different site owners about creating a network throughout their locations," said Pierre Danon, chief executive of BT Retail, in a statement.

Commercial telecommunications operators will still be required to obtain a Telecommunications Act licence, and will be responsible for taking security and possible interference issues into account, according to the Department of Trade and Industry.

The decision does not affect 802.11a, a faster wireless LAN technology than 802.11b, which operates at the 5GHz band and is expected to replace 802.11b in the long term. 802.11a equipment has recently been cleared for use in the UK, but Europe-wide approval is not expected until later this year.

A government-commissioned report issued in March found that that allowing commercial unlicensed use of the 2.4GHz and 5GHz would benefit the UK to the tune of £500m per year.

ZDNet UK's Graeme Wearden contributed to this report.

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