UK to get Europe’s largest Wi-Fi network


7 Mar 2003

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The case for wireless broadband networks has been boosted with the news that a UK network operator is to create Europe’s largest Wi-Fi network extending to 3,000 outlets by the year end.

Inspired Broadcast Networks, the company behind the ambitious project, is a subsidiary of Leisure Link Group, the largest provider of coin-operated entertainment terminals in the UK and plans to offer the service in many of the group’s venues which include pubs, clubs, betting offices and bingo halls.

IBN – through its operating unit ‘The Cloud’ – recently ordered 21,000 DSL (digital subscriber line) lines from BT, the largest DSL contract to date and also signed a deal with Swedish network equipment manufacturer Ericsson which will equip the terminals with Wi-Fi capabilities. A third technology partner is Intel, which is next week due to launch its Centrino mobile technology for notebook PCs, which features built-in wireless communications capability.

The Cloud will launch free trial services from 250 locations by the end of April. Commercial service will be available from 1,000 locations by 30 June and by the end of 2003, The Cloud will offer Wi-Fi services from 3,000 sites.

The Cloud is also open to any branded service provider to offer Wi-Fi services to customers under its own brand. BT Openzone will be the first service provider of The Cloud and will be offering commercial services starting in July 2003. The addition of The Cloud to its existing sites and roaming agreements makes BT Openzone the commercial operator with access to the most hotspots in Europe. Visitors to The Cloud’s locations will also be able to purchase access to the network from the Leisure Link Itbox entertainment terminals in each site, making it simple for Wi-Fi users without a laptop or personal digital assistant to get online.

“By opening the network to any service provider that wishes to offer a branded service, we also make it possible for the cellular companies to complement their 3G [third-generation] strategies and for systems integrators and others to bundle mobility into their software solutions,” said George Polk, managing director, The Cloud.

Although Wi-Fi hotspots have started to appear in coffee shops, hotels, airports and other places across Europe, many countries are still in the early stages of deployment and lag behind the US where Wi-Fi hotspots are commonplace in cities such as New York. According to Inspired Broadcast Networks, there are currently less than 200 public access Wi-Fi sites throughout the UK and the largest network in Europe is approximately 500 sites. Ireland’s Wi-Fi efforts are similarly at an early stage, with O2 planning to introduce hotspots in a number of hotels around the country plus Heuston Station, Esat BT wiring up Dun Laoghaire harbour and Eircom, like O2, planning to launch a service in select hotels.

By Brian Skelly