O2 is to start deploying Wi-Fi access points across the UK that will offer free access to any user, regardless of mobile or broadband provider, in a move that could radically shake up the public Wi-Fi market.
The operator said that the network will double the number of Wi-Fi locations in the UK run by BT Openzone and The Cloud by 2013 to about 15,000, and that O2's 450 retail locations will be the first to join the network during the second quarter of 2011.
O2 plans to use strategic partnerships with shops, restaurants and retail outlets at indoor and outdoor locations across the UK to host the Wi-Fi access points and offer what it claims will be the first free Wi-Fi network in the UK.
All the locations will be dedicated public hotspots, rather than accessed via nearby residential connections, according to the company.
Gavin Franks, O2's managing director of Wi-Fi, told V3.co.uk that the market for Wi-Fi is currently stagnant, but has the potential to see major growth.
"When the first Wi-Fi access points were put in there wasn't the smartphone market that exists now where people want access to data and online services quickly and instantly," he said.
"Many users have frustrating experiences with Wi-Fi hotspots or don't understand how to access the networks, such as what information they need to sign up, a password to remember and so forth, and so the market has become stagnant."
O2 hopes that partnering with businesses that recognise the value of a free Wi-Fi access point can revolutionise the market.
"For mobile users this will bring big benefits by increasing the quality of Wi-Fi network coverage, and will help give partners increased engagement with customers," said Franks.
The move will also ease pressure on overburdened mobile networks, but Franks stressed that this is an added benefit rather than a goal.
Terry Norman, principal analyst at Analysys Mason told V3.co.uk he thought the move by O2 was a "logical extension" to help the firm meet growing traffic demands and would help customers get a better experience when accessing data away from the home.
"People want good coverage and services when out and about and Wi-Fi provides this so there is definitely a demand in the market and it makes sense for operators like O2 to enter this space," he said.
"It probably won't threaten or displace BT Openzone or The Cloud but it will help increase the use of Wi-Fi out and about, especially if O2 can take away the issue of having to configure devices to different Wi-Fi hotspots and make connectivity seamless."
The announcement is still likely to cause some concern for BT and The Cloud, which dominate the public Wi-Fi space. It also comes as Sky is rumoured to be purchasing The Cloud, underlining the growing importance of Wi-Fi networks.
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