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BT aims to make UK a Wi-Fi kibbutz

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BT unveiled ambitious plans today to create the world's most extensive Wi-Fi network by persuading consumers to share access to their home router.

It's part of a move by the national telco to head off the rise of 3G mobile internet on the cheap via a Home Hub firmware update.

BT's three million Total Broadband customers will be asked to join a community developed by BT and FON, the wireless firm run by Argentinian billionaire Martin Varsavsky.

Membership will grant users access to BT Openzone hotspots, the 190,000 hotspots FON claims worldwide, and internet connections owned by other members for no extra charge.

If another of the 500,000 international "Foneros" accesses your Home Hub, they'll be allocated 512Kbit/s of downstream bandwidth. Any data the guest downloads won't count towards the owner's usage allowance. If, in turn, a Total Broadband punter uses FON out and about, it'll be recorded on their account. BT says it'll know who carried out any illegal activity and that access to the network will be secure.

BT's consumer chief Gavin Patterson said: "We have built a public Wi-Fi network and 12 Wireless Cities already, but today we are saying to customers, let's build a Wi-Fi community together, which covers everywhere and serves everyone."

It's the biggest ever deal for Madrid-based FON, which has been strongest in the Spanish, Japanese, and French markets. BT will have observed with interest as municipal Wi-Fi hit the buffers Stateside, and making its customers foot the bill for better coverage makes corporate sense. How FON's quid pro quo will go down with BT's customers is a different matter.

It's not an original idea, as we noted at last year's 3GSM conference in Barcelona. Joltage, a similar bandwidth-sharing utopia, lasted only a year.

However, as part of its arrangement with FON, BT has joined fellow comms big-hitters Google and Skype (the eBay-owned VoIPsters playing with a smaller bat these days) in investing in the firm, and taken a seat on the board. The brass tacks of the buy-in are being kept secret, but BT will be feeding some to FON.

Varsavky wrote: "It was amazing and refreshing to see how agile a telco giant could be in working with an innovative concept like the BT FON Community."

"Agile" BT's annual profits of £2.4bn make a gamble like FON a bet worth making.

BT's information page is here. Martin Varsavsky's musings on the deal are on his website here.

There's a glitzy party at the Tate Modern tonight to kick off the marketing push for what amounts to a hi-tech kibbutz. It's a strange world we live in these days. ®

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