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Last Updated: Monday, 5 January, 2004, 00:48 GMT
Wireless web reaches out in 2004
By Jo Twist
BBC News Online technology reporter

The UN says it is good for poorer nations, Exeter is the best place for it, you can get it with your burger, lager or latte, it is in 200 phone boxes, and the UK's E-commerce Minister Stephen Timms wants every library to have it.

Businessmen using wi-fi technology
So far it has been mainly used by travelling business people
We are talking wi-fi and it is something, along with hotspots, Wisps, and WLANs that we could be hearing a lot more of in 2004.

Wi-fi essentially allows people to connect to the net at broadband speeds without cables, as long as they have the right equipment and, in most cases, a wi-fi account.

But so far, it has been a service that is most useful for business people who want to work on the move.

To prove just how much this technology is going to be driven into our everyday lives in the coming year, BT Openzone, operators of one the main wi-fi networks in the UK, have announced an inaugural Wireless Broadband Week.

Wi-fi for all?

Between 26 January and 1 February it wants other operators to join it in offering free wi-fi for all.

The aim, says BT, is to expose wireless surfing to a much broader range of people, not just the travelling business person in public places like hotels or airport lounges.

"We believe that 2004 will be the real growth curve for this important new service because of our efforts, and those of our site and technology partners," explained Michael Jarvis, BT spokesperson.

Old BT red telephone boxes
United States: 12,772
United Kingdom: 3,649
Japan: 954
Germany: 702
Taiwan: 628
Australia: 454
Sweden: 435
Canada: 376
Austria: 364
France: 358
Source: Jiwire December 2003
"Intel ran a wireless day in the US, so we decided to follow their example.

"But instead, we made it a week to give all potential customers the opportunity to use the service wherever and whenever they would like during that week."

Yet only in last June, analysts Forrester predicted that wi-fi would be the "next dot.com crash", mainly because of patchy hotspot coverage, lack of enabled hardware and few business models with which to make money.

However, technology companies like Intel are leading the way by building their wi-fi Centrino chip into laptops, and increasingly more handheld computers are being sold with wi-fi capability.

Mobile phones with wi-fi in them will start to surface too, albeit at a fairly slow rate, dragged down by the price tag.

Meanwhile, the number of places where you can get online on the move, "hotspots" - which have a range of about 100 metres - is growing fast.

The UK is doing quite well in terms of that growth, said Ian Fogg, Jupiter analyst, thanks to Wisps (Wireless Internet Providers) and networks like BT and The Cloud.

"Unlike our neighbours, many of the hotspots in the UK exist in pubs and bars, due to the efforts of The Cloud [network], but they are not natural locations for wi-fi.

"Mobile operators in the UK have been relatively slow to move into wi-fi in the UK, compared with Orange in France, Swisscom Natel, or T-Mobile Germany."

Currently there are more than 8,500 hotspots in Europe, and that is expected to grow to 70,000 by 2008.

Latest figures from analysts IDC predict the number of global wi-fi hotspots will increase from 50,000 in 2003 to 85,000 in 2004.

By summer 2004, BT Openzone alone plans to boost its current 1,700 public hotspots to 4,000.

Wireless countryside

There is no doubt wi-fi could extend the reach of broadband net to a lot more people, and could be the first step in ubiquitous connectivity to the web.

But by far the most popular locations for public wi-fi hotspots have been in city areas such as hotels, cafes, airports and stations, said Mr Fogg.

In the US, 70% of online consumers are aware of public wi-fi, but just 6% have used it to date
Ian Fogg, Jupiter analyst
Despite this, community groups in rural areas, frustrated with the limited reach of broadband net through phone lines or cable, have spotted the advantage of a technology that does not rely on physical wires.

Several have clubbed together in DIY fashion to set up their own wireless local area networks (WLAN), to distribute broadband around their area, like Cybermoor.

Two more likely ways of seeing wi-fi between urban areas in 2004 will be on a train travelling from one city to another or at home, said Mr Fogg.

I'm on the train

Broadreach and Virgin plan wi-fi on the West Coast main line during 2004, while GNER has already tried out wi-fi on its East Coast mainline.

People in a pub
Surf the net or sip a pint?
"Or it will be within homes, where people will use wi-fi to share internet connections without the need for new wiring," added Mr Fogg.

They will then be able to use their wire-free network to send digital music between computers and stereos.

There are still a few big challenges ahead for wi-fi. Finalising interoperability and standards is one, and the concern over security and who is using your WLAN is another.

But one of the biggest challenges is making people aware of wi-fi.

Providers should not find it too much of a problem persuading home users of the benefits, argued Mr Fogg, where the promise of "no new wiring" will be compelling.

"But in the US, 70% of online consumers are aware of public wi-fi, but just 6% have used it to date.

"BT's free wireless week will be the first salvo on user communication."

Exeter named 'top wireless town'
13 Nov 03  |  Technology
Broadband arrival for GNER trains
02 Dec 03  |  Technology
Wi-fi future for UK's phone boxes
16 Sep 03  |  Technology
UN urges wi-fi for all
27 Jun 03  |  Technology
Libraries could get wireless web
11 Sep 03  |  Technology
Boost to wireless broadband
20 May 03  |  Technology
Wi-fi will be 'next dot.com crash'
20 Jun 03  |  Business
Net cafes take on wi-fi rivals
27 Feb 03  |  Technology
Wireless net offered with a pint
07 Mar 03  |  Technology
People confused by wi-fi jargon
10 Aug 03  |  Technology

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