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Openzone madness at end of Jan

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For all those itching to put their Wi-Fi Xmas presents to good use, this month will give you the chance to browse the Web and send emails for free.

BT is offering a week’s free wireless broadband over its Openzone network at the end of the month (usually it’s £6 an hour or £85 a month limitless).

From 26 January to 1 February, you only have to register with Openzone to be granted a week’s unlimited access. And that is “without time limits” as opposed to BT’s 50-hours-a-month definition of “unlimited” for dial-up access.

Intel is also diverting a bit of its enormous marketing budget for the Centrino wireless chipset to coincide with BT’s offer.

At the same time, BT has (finally) introduced a pay-as-you-go tariff of 20p a minute - still hugely expensive but a step forward - and slashed the cost of its wireless access point (aimed at getting small to medium businesses to introduce Wi-Fi in their offices) from £400 to £250.

With both BT and Intel spending a lot of money pushing wireless access, they clearly feel the time is right to go for the wider consumer market. Businessmen have grown used to wireless access at airports, hotels and the like but BT has been working exhaustingly at introducing wireless points across the rest of the country so it becomes far more ubiquitous.

Only yesterday it officially announced a tie-in with McDonalds to install points in all its restaurants. If anything was a symbol of going for the mainstream market, is it surely that.

BT owns 400+ wireless points but has deals meaning its customers can use 1,700 across the country. And it has announced a target of 4,000 by this summer.

The problem though, as BT knows only too well, is that people need to sign up. There are huge estimates for how many people will be using wireless in a few years but with a relatively low number of devices capable of receiving and sending data over the 802.11 protocol, prices are currently high and so people are disinclined to use it.

It is a vicious circle BT is trying to break. A previous BT offer in September 2003 tried to drive the pick-up of Wi-Fi goods when it offered 90-days free access if you bought a Dell laptop with Intel’s Centrino chipset.

If BT can get people to sign up, they not only have the kit but will able to connect simply to its network. Get the ball rolling and more people will use the expanding infrastructure, which means the price of access will get lower, bringing in more people. And so on and so forth. Plus of course, it will give BT a steal on the market.

In fact, it’s a little incredible that BT hasn’t been accused of abusing its position by competitors, as is often the case in every other area of telecommunications - sometimes with good reason.

However this is all good news for the UK - it gives a very clear signal of the biggest telecoms company’s commitment and so should provide piece of mind and some stability. The UK is already well ahead in its adoption of Wi-Fi, second only to the US - the US has around 13,000 hotspots, the UK 4,000, Japan and Germany (next up) less than 1,000.

BT's announcement has already sparked another company specialising in installing Wi-Fi kit in new properties to produce its own press release. “HSO, one of the UK's leading integrated communications suppliers, welcomes the move by BT to stage Wireless Broadband Week,” it reads, “but feels that a huge opportunity will be missed if significant emphasis is not placed on educating the business and commercial property sectors alongside consumer markets.” You won’t be surprised to hear that HSO works in the business and commercial property sectors.

So if you have a new PDA with Wi-Fi or you’ve got a wireless laptop, you’ve got nothing to lose - once you’ve found your local hotspot of course. ®

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