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Working in a Wireless Wonderland Part II


Back in June I wrote a column titled Working in a Wireless Wonderland, addressing the problems with wireless working and how the reality wasn’t really measuring up to the marketing hype. One of my main concerns was with WiFi hotspots and how there wasn’t any kind of roaming facility between them. Basically, I wanted to be able to subscribe to BT OpenZone but still access hotspots from other suppliers like T-Mobile, in much the same way that you roam across mobile phone networks.

Well, a couple of weeks ago I had a meeting scheduled with Chris Clark, the CEO for Wireless Broadband at BT and I was looking forward to bringing up some of the points that I had mentioned in my previous article. However, Chris had already read my original column and was keen to explain how he had addressed my main gripe.

Chris was pleased to tell me that BT has negotiated roaming agreements with other hotspot providers, so now you can wander into Starbucks and access the T-Mobile hotspot as a BT OpenZone subscriber. But of more interest to me was the global roaming agreement that BT had just undertaken. Following a meeting of the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), an agreement was made that allows BT OpenZone subscribers to gain access to 20,000 hotspots worldwide from partners like T-Mobile, Telstra, StarHub and Telecom Italia.

This should mean that you can fly to the US on business, and just wander into a Starbucks, grab a cup of coffee and check your email, without having to pay a penny over your normal BT OpenZone subscription. Sounds pretty good in theory, and I’ll be checking that scenario out in practice when I head over to CES in Las Vegas next month.

Of course all this worldwide functionality doesn’t come free, and you do need to have a subscription based BT OpenZone account to make use of it – pre-pay vouchers aren’t covered by the roaming agreement. The monthly subscription charge to gain access to all these WiFi hotspots is £25 – this gives you 4,000 minutes a month of WiFi access which equates to around three hours a day, five days a week. Now, if you’re thinking that this is expensive, let me point you back to my original column, where I mentioned that an hour of Internet access at a Starbucks T-Mobile hotspot would set you back £5 if bought on-site.

However, Chris Clark also pointed out that BT is making wireless mobility far more affordable for its broadband customers. Basically, if you have a BT broadband (ADSL) account, you can have access to BT OpenZone enabled hotspots for a promotional cost of only £1 per month for the first three months. After the initial three month period, this cost will rise to £5 per month as part of a 12 month contract, but the customer does have the option to cancel the agreement at any time during the first three months.

On the surface the BT broadband/wireless bundle makes a huge amount of sense, but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that it’s not as compelling an offer as it first seems. First off, if you go for this bundle, you only get 500 minutes of WiFi hotspot time a month, instead of the 4,000 minutes that come with the full BT OpenZone subscription. Also, the broadband/wireless bundle doesn’t include the use of international hotspots, and if you want to get connected while you’re abroad it will cost you 23.5p a minute.

But the limited use of the WiFi hotspots isn’t the only thing that makes the bundle deal far from attractive. While broadband services are becoming cheaper and faster every day, BT broadband continues to be more expensive than the competition while also being severely limited. Looking at the packages offered by both BT Broadband and BT Yahoo! Broadband, it becomes apparent that BT doesn’t offer a broadband service without a download cap. This means that a BT Broadband ADSL account with 512kbit/sec download speed will cost you £24.99 a month, but you’re only allowed to download 15GB of data per month, if you go over that limit you’ll have to pay extra. Most other ISPs will offer you a 512kbit/sec connection with no download limit for a similar price, if not less.

To be fair to BT, it is by no means the only broadband provider that is offering services with restrictive download limits, but what bothers me is that you don’t have the option of a package with unlimited download. Most other ISPs will price their capped services very low, allowing people that know they won’t download masses of content the option to save some money, but they will still offer uncapped services for the rest of us. BT isn’t giving its customers this choice, instead deciding that it knows what Internet user need better than the users themselves.

However, poor broadband implementation aside, it does seem that BT is moving in the right direction as far as wireless mobility goes. I did ask Chris Clark if there was any chance of seeing WiFi coverage rolling out across an entire city in the UK, like it has in Sydney Australia. He said that he thought it was unlikely, especially with technologies like 3G rolling out that will service the user who needs to be connected anytime and anyplace. As a regular user of a Vodafone 3G data card, I have to say that I agree with Chris’ stand on this point – I use the data card whenever I’m out and about in London, but if I needed to download a large file, I’d probably find a WiFi hotspot and make use of that.

Ultimately, it looks like the future of wireless mobility will be a combination of different technologies. As 3G coverage rolls out across the whole country, devices like 3G data cards, or even 3G phones with Bluetooth functionality will be used more and more by mobile workers. Meanwhile, increased proliferation of WiFi hotspots around the world will make it easy for business travellers to keep in touch no matter where they may be.

So it looks like as long as I’m armed with my trusty 3G data card and a BT OpenZone subscriber account, my dream of working in a wireless wonderland can become a reality.

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