Saturday, 3 March 2012

UK wi-fi: the ultimate guide

Need broadband internet access on the go or where a fixed line is unavailable? Wi-fi is for you.

As our need to get online has grown and, not coincidentally, mobile data services have faced an unprecedented capacity crunch and soaring prices, UK wi-fi access has come on leaps and bounds.

Free and cheap wi-fi is all around: you just have to know where to look.

Many commercial premises, particularly national chains, offer internet access for free to their paying customers although how far an establishment will let you stretch the definition of 'paying' varies.

For those who want to use a wi-fi hotspot on a regular basis it's usually much easier to bite the bullet and subscribe to a package from one of the major providers: BT Openzone new window or The Cloud new window.

BT Openzone

BT Openzone has more than 2.8 million wi-fi hotspots throughout the UK and Ireland (including BTFON), and has teamed up with a number of brands to provide internet access in public places.

The vast majority of BT Openzone hotspots are broadcast by normal BT Broadband customers via their BT Home Hub wireless routers and the second biggest slice - around 137,000 hotspots at the last count - are similarly broadcast by BT business broadband users.

As a result, coverage is generally good but there are few guarantees.

To be sure of finding a good Openzone signal it can be worth trying the few thousand official BT Openzone hotspots installed in cafes, hotels, airports and motorway service stations or the 13 big hotspots covering whole city centres.

Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham, Portsmouth, Sheffield, Waltham Forest and Westminster all have Openzone city centres.

Vouchers & Packages

BT Openzone wi-fi access is free for BT broadband customers.

They just use their normal BT log-in to get access. Our is BT broadband any good? guide has more information.

Those that aren't BT home broadband customers must pay for access either with a voucher or on a PAYG basis.

The cost of using BT Openzone without a voucher is 18p per minute so just an hour would set you back over £10.

Pre-pay vouchers are much better value for money and cost from £5.99 for 90 minutes to £39.00 for 30 days.

There are even contracts available, the most popular 18-month unlimited deal is £15 a month.

The Cloud

The Cloud, owned by BskyB, is Europe's biggest provider of free wi-fi hotspots.

However, the UK's 22,000 'public' hotspots are usually privately owned by businesses. Branches of Pizza Express, Pret A Manger, McDonalds, Punch Taverns, Marriott Hotels and numerous train stations (see below for links to locations) all use The Cloud, for example.

Connecting to The Cloud

The Cloud offer an Android FastConnect app for quicker connection.

Users register once in order to be automatically connected to Cloud hotspots so that they don't need to sign in to each location.

Note that the Nintendo 3DS will automatically connect to The Cloud, provided that users download and install the 3DS internet browser.

There is no cost to access The Cloud hotspots because the companies offering the network absorb the cost. Head to The Cloud's hotspot finder new window to find the nearest one.

Local hotspots

Both the two wi-fi hotspot providers above and the many other local providers, businesses and councils offering wi-fi for free, can be hard to locate, however.

Here are some ways to find them.

Some of the UK's biggest High Street names provide free wi-fi access to their customers, provided you buy something.

If you pop in and set yourself up without looking likely to even purchase a coffee, be prepared for some dodgy looks from the staff.

Here are just some of the companies offering wi-fi to their customers and links to maps for your nearest participating branches:

O2 wi-fi

In January 2011, O2 announced that they would be developing their own free public wi-fi network.

Currently the network only covers 450 O2-owned sites, mainly the provider's stores but expansion to 15,000 sites is planned for the end of 2013.

O2 already include unlimited access to its wi-fi as part of their mobile broadband deals.

2012 Olympics

O2 have also confirmed that they'll start installing a London wi-fi network in January in preparation for the London 2012 Olympics and the Queen's Golden Jubilee.

The network is being referred to as Europe's largest wi-fi hub and in some cases the world's largest.

And although the original idea is to get the O2 wi-fi up and running in time for the Olympics, O2 will be building with an eye to their bigger expansion plan which could see them offering the services at 'street level'.

Virgin free wi-fi for all

O2 may be planning street level free wi-fi sometime in the distant future but Virgin Media have already got the ball rolling.

Chief executive, Neil Berkett, said back in August that Virgin were already in advanced talks with the councils in London about permission for the work.

In a bid to challenge the BT Openzone and future O2 wi-fi network, Virgin Media's vision is to install a wi-fi router in every side street cabinet which would then provide local homes and businesses with access to the company's network.

Like BT Openzone, much of that will run off excess wireless provided by existing Virgin Media customers.

Also like BT, Virgin Media plans to offer an extra break for its customers.

The network would be open to anyone at relatively low speeds of 0.5Mbps, but subscribers of its home wi-fi could see speeds of up to 10Mbps.

"This is to solve a real problem [and] we've got the best fibre network in the country that could help meet it," Virgin Media's brilliantly-titled Director of Advanced Technology Kevin Baughan said.

"This isn't about building broad coverage, it's about giving you fast, predictable, access where you need it."

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