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Payphone deal to take Cloud's hotspot tally to 10,000

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Pub-based Wi-Fi network The Cloud is to expand its chain of 1800-odd hotspots to as many as 10,000, thanks to deal signed with payphone company NWP Spectrum.

The agreement will see The Cloud add Wi-Fi to many of NWP's 7000 payphone installations throughout the UK. That's in addition to the 3000 hotspots The Cloud plans to have in place by the end of the year.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed. Work will start fitting access points immediately, but the companies did not say when the roll-out process will be complete. According to a spokesman for The Cloud, implementation is being governed by demand, with the busiest sites being 'upgraded' first.

NWP provides payphone services on the High Street, and through partners - it manages London Underground's payphone installations, for example, along with those in the UK's airports, Welcome Break and Hilton hotels. The company also operates around 3000 payphone sites in Germany.

Both parties are touting the plan as a massive extension to the UK's Wi-Fi coverage, but there's still little evidence to show there are enough people out there willing to make use of all these extra hotspots - even less for the number of folk happy to pay for it.

To date, The Cloud has only partnered with BT Openzone, allowing the latter's subscriber base to access its network in addition to BT's own. It hopes deals with other service providers will follow. Until then, users who aren't Openzone customers will have to seek out locations that offer The Cloud's £6 an hour pay-as-you-go facilities. BT charges £6 an hour or £15 for a 24-hour access pass, pre-pay, or provides a variety of complex, mobile phone-style monthly subscriptions. Either way, access isn't cheap.

This wholesale approach has become the holy grail of UK public WLAN provision, with networks keen to allow broad access to their hotspots in return for a cut of the user's payment rather than build exclusive and direct relationships with customers. That's the only way to offer the level of coverage necessary to make public Wi-Fi a success, say companies like The Cloud and Broadreach Networks.

The NWP deal will allow The Cloud to claim a very high percentage of the available hotspots in the UK. In turn, it hopes, that will persuade service providers - ISPs and mobile phone networks, for example - to sell its Wi-Fi access on to their own customer bases, crucially providing centralised billing to make access as easy as possible.

Alas it's chicken and egg. Unlike, say, Orange or Freeserve provides Wi-Fi to their customers, few of those subscribers will want to go through the hassle - not to mention the expense - of signing up with an array of providers just to get ready access to the Net while they're on the move.

Either way, we reckon they will prefer more secure locations in which to whip out their expensive notebook or PDA than a payphone kiosk or a busy shopping centre. ®

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