Wi-Fi hot spots to hit UK

Internet cafes could go wireless if the government accepts a proposal to license commercial use of 802.11b, which currently isn't allowed in Britain
Written by Graeme Wearden, Contributor

The government has been advised to end the restrictions that prevent the commercial use of the 2.4GHz spectrum band that is used by the 802.11b standard.

If implemented, this would allow British companies to operate "Wi-Fi hot spots" in areas such as airports and cafes. Laptop and PDA users who own a 802.11b card would be able to get high-speed Internet access whenever they entered a building that operated a public wireless local area network (LAN).

Such access could be charged by the minute, or could even be free as an added incentive when goods are purchased. Currently, such public access services are not allowed in the UK -- unlike in America where companies such as Starbucks are able to sell wireless Web access to customers within their stores.

A government-commissioned review of radio spectrum management, published on Wednesday, has recommended a more liberal approach to the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. "The current constraint on the use of licence-exempt bands for the provision of public access communications services should be removed as soon as possible," advises the report, which was prepared by a team led by Professor Martin Cave of Brunel University.

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 802.11b as a way of selling Internet connectivity.

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.

802.11a, a faster wireless LAN technology than 802.11b, operates at the 5GHz band. There are still some hurdles to overcome before it can operate in Europe, but it is seen as being a long-term replacement to 802.11b.

Professor Cave believes that allowing commercial unlicensed use of the 2.4GHz and 5GHz would benefit the UK to the tune of £500m per year.

He warns that it would not be possible to guarantee the transmission quality, but that is an issue that users would have to make a judgement on. If they need a higher quality service, they could use a licensed spectrum-based product instead.

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