Railways set for Wi-Fi showdown

It's Battle of the Bands as Britain's largest hot-spot operators gear up for their first Wi-Fight

The UK's two leading Wi-Fi operators are on course for their first territorial clash, and the scene of battle is Britain's largest railway stations.

BT Openzone, the pace-setter in the rollout of 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, hot spots across the UK, said last week that it expected to offer its service at railway stations in the near future, in its push to make Wi-Fi "widely available to businesspeople on the move."

Openzone officials declined to disclose further details about this plan, but if executed it would set up a battle with Openzone's main rival, Megabeam.

Both firms have said they are targeting businesspeople with their high-speed wireless Internet services, and control of travel hubs is seen as a key factor in winning this market.

Megabeam signed a deal with Railtrack -- now Network Rail -- last year to create hot spots at 15 of Britain's largest railway stations. Only one is operational so far, at Paddington Station, with Euston, Liverpool Street, Victoria and Waterloo due to follow within the next two months.

No date has yet been publicly announced for the activation of hot spots at the remaining stations -- Kings Cross, London Bridge, Fenchurch Street, Charing Cross, Gatwick, Birmingham New Street, Manchester Piccadilly, Leeds Central, Glasgow Central and Edinburgh Waverley.

When Megabeam's agreement with Railtrack was announced, back in June 2002, industry figures thought it placed Megabeam in a strong market position.

This deal would not prevent Openzone from making a similar move, though, according to Ryan Jarvis, chief executive of Megabeam.

"Megabeam targets travel hubs -- airports and rail stations -- and travel destinations. Our agreements with destinations are always exclusive. The majority of agreements with hubs are non-exclusive, although there are exceptions like Brussels Airport and London City Airport, which are exclusive," Jarvis told ZDNet UK News.

"We were always clear that Railtrack is non-exclusive, we were just the first to do the deal," Jarvis added.

According to experts, there are no technical reasons why both companies couldn't operate 802.11b wireless LANs in the same area, as long as they cooperate.

It would, though, put them head-to-head in a race to attract as many mobile workers as possible to their service.

David Hughes, director of mobility at BT, said last week that Openzone was focused on the "road warrior" -- people who want access to the Internet and their corporate systems while away from the office. Megabeam is also concentrating on this market, through alliances with airports and the Moat House hotel chain, for example.

Megabeam currently has 14 hot spots up and running in Britain, compared to Openzone's 80.

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