O2 plans free Wi-Fi for all, not just its own subscribers

The UK’s second-largest mobile operator plans to deploy a public Wi-Fi platform, which it promises will be double the size of existing networks by 2013. This is great news for smartphone users because it reduces the reliance on patchy 3G connectivity.

O2’s Wifi service will compete against BT’s Openzone and Fon networks—the biggest networks in the UK—and The Cloud, which claims to have around 22,000 hotspots internationally. Unlike BT’s Fon network, O2’s service promises premium public hotspots opposed to using residential connections with limited bandwidth. With the launch of O2 Wifi, O2’s premium hotspots will be managed through partnerships with key venue owners and will be open to all customers for free, no matter which mobile or broadband provider they are with.

O2 is aiming to create a scaled Wi-Fi platform that will be at least double the number of premium hotspots currently offered by BT Openzone and The Cloud combined by 2013. It will begin rollout immediately by replacing its existing 450 cloud hotspots in its retail and office estate. It will continue to extend the reach and scale of O2 Wifi through partnerships with strategic venues, to include shops, restaurants, retail outlets and outdoor and indoor locations across the UK.

The whole premise behind the O2 Wifi service is that it will address the many shortcomings of current public Wi-Fi offerings by being genuinely free, simple, fast and secure. O2 claims its mobile expertise and insight, allied with an enhanced quality of network connectivity and strong venue partnerships will deliver a “significantly enhanced user experience”.

This is a good move to sort out O2’s capacity issues, brought about by high iPhone ownership and the increasing desire for data on the move, but 450 sites is not going to change the country’s Wi-Fi coverage overnight. Having said that, it’ll be a neat service for smartphone users and help O2 avoid the infrastructure problems it suffered in 2009 in cities including London. Smartphones and tablet PCs are causing network operators (and ISPs) headaches because they provide the opportunity to watch bandwidth-draining video on the move.

Access to the hotspots—O2 hopes to have about 15,000 in place by 2013—will be through a sign-up process and will be free to both O2 and non-O2 mobile customers. As we all know, nothing’s free and O2 will be funding the venture to non-customers via advertising. The sign up process should be auto provisioned for all O2 customers with Wi-Fi devices by the end of the year. All hotspots will be premium public hotspots, as opposed to using residential connections with limited bandwidth.

O2’s New Business Development Director Tim Sefton said: “Building networks is a core capability. We have pioneered the explosion of mobile data over the last three years and know better than anyone where people are accessing data. O2 Wifi hotspots will bring high quality public Wi-fi access to the majority of mobile users.

“Only 20% of people who have access to free public Wi-Fi on O2 tariffs actively use it despite the majority of devices being Wi-Fi enabled. We know that Wi-Fi as a technology has great potential and can be a very fast service, however customers are discouraged by barriers which include complexity in activation, uncertainty of where Wi-Fi is free and the variable quality of the current experience.”

In addition, O2 is increasing investment in its mobile network by 25% in 2011. These investments will allow O2 to offer customers access to a suite of layered technologies, including 2G, EDGE, 3G, 4G, HSPA+ and Wi-Fi.

Christian Harris is editor and publisher of BCW. Christian has over 20 years' publishing experience and in that time has contributed to most major IT magazines and Web sites in the UK. He launched BCW in 2009 as he felt there was a need for honest and personal commentary on a wide range of business computing issues. Christian has a BA (Hons) in Publishing from the London College of Communication.