Nokia switches on free Wi-Fi trial in London

The company has set up a trial of free Wi-Fi hotspots, using 26 payphone boxes in busy areas of central London to provide streetside connections open to anyone to use on any device

Nokia has kicked off a two-month trial of free on-street Wi-Fi services in central London, open to all mobile devices running on any platform.

Nokia Wi-Fi landing page

Nokia has launched a two-month trial of free on-street Wi-Fi in London for all mobile phones. Photo credit: Mary Branscombe

If the pilot programme launched on Tuesday is successful, Nokia intends to roll the free Wi-Fi hotspots out across London from the beginning of 2012. The service aims to allow people with a phone to go online while out on the streets of the capital, according to Nokia.

"Think about how many devices now are data-hungry — not just top-end devices but mid-level devices and phones," John Nichols, head of marketing at Nokia, said on Tuesday. "People want to get onto Facebook, download content, download maps."

The pilot service, run by hotspot operator Spectrum Interactive, uses 26 Wi-Fi-equipped phone boxes to deliver connectivity. Any nearby mobile device — not just those from Nokia — running on any platform can use the service; all people need is a browser on their phone. The initial Wi-Fi hotspots are located in popular areas in the West End: Oxford Street, Victoria, Tottenham Court Road, Bloomsbury, South Kensington, Mayfair, Lancaster Gate, Knightsbridge, Bayswater, Westminster, Marylebone and Sloane Square.

The telephone boxes are fitted with Wi-Fi equipment and 20Mbps DSL connections. Each device connection is delivered over an individual network segment to ensure privacy, preventing people from connecting to other people's devices. Connections are limited to 1Mbps downstream and 512kbps upstream; this is designed to allow use of email, web browsers and popular social-networking applications and services, while discouraging downloading and media streaming.

We're just looking at what devices are connecting and what the usage patterns are. We're not collecting any personal information.

– John Nichols, Nokia

Smartphones connecting to the service for the first time see a Nokia-branded landing page, before being redirected to a mobile portal. No log-on is required, and devices will be automatically recognised when they reconnect to the service. People are not restricted to the Nokia portal, but can use Twitter, email and other data services.

A number of operators plan to set up free Wi-Fi services. In August, Virgin Media said it is looking at reusing its existing infrastructure to deliver a 500kbps connection across London, open to all. Mobile operator O2 plans to provide free Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the UK, in retail areas and outdoor areas.

Nokia sees on-street Wi-Fi as suited to quick interactions with online services. It will use the trial to collect data on devices and usage, so it can plan the expansion of the service. The pilot will also help determine where additional hotspots should be located.

"We're just looking at what devices are connecting and what the usage patterns are," Nichols said. "We're not collecting any personal information. When we get all the data in, we can compare, say, a tourist in London [with] a business user."

Expansion plans

In the future, the Wi-Fi hotspots might not be restricted to Spectrum's phone boxes, according to Simon Alberga, executive chairman of Spectrum Interactive.

"We're not limited to the number of payphone sites; we have plenty of phone boxes, so we can get an extensive but not ubiquitous service," Alberga said. "We're in discussion with partners who own different types of street furniture, so we can make it more ubiquitous — so we can start doing clever things such as meshing to make it more pervasive — but we need to start somewhere."

For Nokia, the free Wi-Fi service will help with branding and to publicise its mapping service, which will show all 26 hotspots as points of interest. The final business model for the service remains to be decided, but Alberga noted that there is a possibility it could eventually feature advertising-supported services.

"We've used advertising to defray the cost of bringing a service to the public — something we'd be looking to incorporate into a possible future rollout," he said. "It has to be mutually beneficial for the user as well as the Wi-Fi provider, as well anybody else involved."

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