Press release -

Can Virgin and O2 shake-up the public Wi-Fi scene?

The news that Virgin is planning to ‘take a punt’ on public Wi-Fi and create a free network in London has maintained the momentum created by O2 earlier in the year to deliver free public Wi-Fi on a large scale. Both services have the potential to give users a useful connectivity option when they are out and about, but where are they likely to make the most impact?

At the moment, the free Wi-Fi market is something of a mixed bag - the further you drift from major population centres, the narrower the options become, and even access to the established service providers is hardly what you would call ‘plug and play’ for everyone.

For example, the widely accessible BT Openzone network is free if you are already a BT broadband customer, with main rival BSkyB offering similar free Wi-Fi access to their own broadband customers via The Cloud, whom they acquired for £50 million back in January. You can also hook up to The Cloud through partners as varied as Little Chef and Nintendo (for 3DS users), and there’s 15 minutes of free access per day to users within the Square Mile of London.

O2 are working on their own free Wi-Fi network, and are planning to have 14,000 ‘O2 Wi-Fi’ hotspots in place by 2013, replacing the 450 it currently offers via The Cloud. Beyond that, there are a myriad of localised Wi-Fi services to be found in pubs, restaurants, and in public buildings such as libraries.

Virgin Media’s plans are to provide free connectivity to all users in London at a speed of 0.5MB - chugging along while subscribers to their broadband packages get a connection of up to 10MB. When you are used to much quicker access at home or in the office, half a meg is likely to become quite frustrating quite quickly. However, for basic email and web access, it’s going to deliver a valuable service to a great many people.

So, it seems that Virgin plan to play the same added-value card as BT and BSkyB for their broadband customers, and that they see potential in attracting free users in volume. Should O2’s service pan out as planned, we are going to be offered hotspots located in retail outlets and outdoor areas, with connections of up to 24Mbps, limited by a monthly 10GB fair usage policy. It’s going to be worth keeping an eye out for hotspot locations as the service rolls out, because if we get performance approaching that level, O2 will generate huge interest.

Happy to pay?

Question marks will remain over the issues of speed and quality for the free services, but that’s always likely to be a problem for consumers used to much greater performance. For those of us who fall into that group, the only alternative is to pay.

A quick 90 minute BT Openzone burst will set you back £5.99 or you can stock up with 4000 minutes for £39.00. Monthly subscriptions start at £5 for 500 minutes but you’re also signing up for a 12 month deal, or you can go completely PAYG for 15p per minute, which BT stresses is for the ‘occasional user’. It’s rather like sizing up the right mobile phone contract, and if you want to go the mobile broadband route, not only have you got to size up pay-as-you-go or contract charges, but also keep a close eye on your data usage.

Given that over the course of a month, 1GB of mobile broadband data will provide roughly 40 minutes of daily browsing, 40 sent & received emails per day, 8 music downloads and just 15 minutes of video downloads, it really is a case of fitting your habits around the service you choose and comparing the deals on offer.

When the Virgin and O2 networks arrive, we’ll certainly have more choice and it appears that the plans of O2 in particular will put BT and BSkyB under serious pressure to ramp up the performance of their own services.


  • Computers, computer technology, software


  • karl doody
  • wi-fi
  • o2
  • virgin
  • 27stars
  • bt openzone


  • England

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Rachel Bierley

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