UK set for public Wi-Fi boom

BT has ambitious plans to create a commercial network of at least 400 high-speed wireless hot spots by next summer

In launching its first public wireless LAN hot spots on Monday, BT is helping to move the UK towards a day when consumers will be able to enjoy high-speed wireless access to the Internet in coffee shops, railway stations and hotels.

BT's first Wi-Fi hot spots are located at the Hilton hotel at Heathrow, BT Centre in London, Adastral, the telco's development centre in Ipswich, and Excel, a London convention centre. They will provide wireless Internet access at speeds of up to 500kbps. BT also plans to launch hot spots at Earl's Court Olympia and the Bluewater shopping centre in the coming weeks.

By the time BT launches its commercial Wi-Fi service, called BT Openzone, this August, it will have built up to 20 hot spots if all goes according to plan. This service will let users access the Web wirelessly via their PDAs or laptops -- as long as they have Wi-Fi connectivity and have subscribed to BT's Openzone service.

As ZDNet UK reported in April, BT has said it is aiming for 400 Wi-Fi hot spots by June 2003, and has a long-term target of 4,000 by 2005. These bold targets have led to some concern that BT is attempting to dominate the emerging Wi-Fi market, something that e-commerce minister Stephen Timms has said he would not be happy about.

The launch of BT's first hot spots comes shortly after the government said it was changing the wireless regulations so that Internet service providers could offer wireless Web surfing in airports and coffee shops.

"The government's decision to make Public Access Wireless LAN a reality was great news for BT and we have acted quickly to get it up-and-and give our customers the chance to benefit from high-speed, high-volume mobile working," said Pierre Danon, chief executive of BT Retail, in a statement.

"Interest and reaction has been very positive and we are delighted to announce our first site partners at this early stage. The launch of BT Openzone and the trialling of our first "live" hot spots is just the beginning of our vision to connect our customers, wherever they are," Danon added.

David Bradshaw, Intel's WLAN product marketing manager, told ZDNet UK that BT's announcement was a significant step in Wi-Fi's move towards becoming a mass-market technology.

"We are all heading towards a mobile world where people will move in and out of Wi-Fi hot spots, accessing the Internet at high speeds on their PDA or laptop," Bradshaw said.

Bradshaw explained that Intel is currently conducting a Wi-Fi trial at Paddington station, in collaboration with a company called Megabeam, in which users get fast wireless access to their corporate networks, letting them access their email, for example.

According to Bradshaw, almost every large corporation is rolling out internal Wi-Fi networks -- further proof that the market is set to boom in the months and years ahead.

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