UK gets more Wi-Fi hot spots as T-Mobile expands Starbucks deal

Starbucks' free trial will coalesce into a nationwide commercial service by the end of May as T-Mobile begins its Wi-Fi rollout

Mobile phone network operator T-Mobile will roll out its first Wi-Fi services with hot spots at 56 Starbucks branches across the UK. The rollout will see what started as a free trial at Starbucks turn into a commercial broadband wireless Internet service in 21 major towns and cities throughout the UK by the end of May.

The announcement on Thursday follows what Starbucks says was a successful pilot programme in six branches: four in the City of London, one in London's Soho and one in Birmingham. These free trials, which were run with the help of T-Mobile, will be turned into commercial services as part of the programme.

Graham Rivers, director of business development and strategy at T-Mobile, said the T-Mobile HotSpot service will expand with other partners in future -- in particular, well-known brands with a presence in airports and hotels.

For the T-Mobile HotSpot service at Starbucks, four pre-pay tariffs will be introduced on 31 March, including a 60-minute pass for £5.50, a day pass for £16.50, a month pass for £37.00 and a 120-minute allowance for £14.00.

These tariffs are more expensive than those offered by Internet Exchange, which runs 32 Internet cafes across the UK. The prices of both significantly undercut some of the rates offered by BT and Megabeam, Britain's leading commercial Wi-Fi operators. A 24-hour subscription to BT Openzone costs £15 and a one-month unlimited subscription costs £85 -- or £42.50 if bought before 31 March 2003.

Megabeam charges around £20 for 24-hour access to its pan-European Wi-Fi network, and £78 for one month's access -- or £59 if bought before 31 March, 2003.

The popularity of Wi-Fi hot spots is increasing. Last week the Marriott chain said it would double the number of hot spots at its worldwide network of hotels to 400 this spring.

T-Mobile plans to offer subscriber billing later this year, which will mean users won't have to pay up-front for the services. "Once we have integrated the billing capability, it will allows a subscriber to charge Wi-Fi usage to their account," said Rivers, adding that customers will not be forced to subscribe to T-Mobile's phone network to use the billing service.

"This will work in parallel to the mobile phone market," he said. "We have launched with the equivalent of a pre-pay package, and will later offer the post-pay option."

The reason for the delay, said Rivers, is that T-Mobile does not want to discriminate against subscribers of other mobile phone networks while it waits for the Wi-Fi-only billing capability to be built. "We don't want to force people to be T-Mobile subscriber to use wireless LAN service."

Click here to see a map of the UK's Wi-Fi hot spots.


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