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O2's free Wi-Fi in detail: How free is free exactly?

Freer than you might think

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

On Wednesday O2 announced that it would be rolling out a free Wi-Fi network, paid for by venues hosting it and backed by advertising model that deserves a little more attention.

First, to clarify, this offering isn't limited to smartphones or O2 customers – if you're with Vodafone and want to connect your laptop for free then that's just peachy. O2 Wi-Fi is a separate business unit from Mobile, and one that intends to have its own customer base and its own revenue streams – although the user needs a mobile phone to identify themselves, and upon which to deliver the advertising.

It's also worth mentioning that this new network will exist in parallel to the access that some O2 customers get to The Cloud and/or BT OpenZone, for the length of those contracts at least.

When you first connect to the O2 Wi-Fi network, you'll be presented with a request for your name and mobile number. An identifying code is then sent to the phone as an SMS: type in the code and you're connected. The network remembers the MAC* (unique Ethernet identity) address of the kit connected – be it a smartphone, laptop, games console or whatever – so you don't need to enter those details again. Each phone number can be associated with up to five MAC addresses, which should cover all but the most over-equipped road warrior.

The connectivity will be provided by the venue, who'll pay O2 for providing the service. Venues, or brands, will be able to push a welcome message out to those within range – that message being delivered by SMS or MMS to the customer's phone when the related MAC address turns up on the network. Adverts will also appear on the splash page when the user starts browsing. We asked if users would be able to opt out of the advertising stream, and were told: "You can opt out of O2 Wi-Fi altogether, which will prevent you from receiving content from the venue."

The system will only know you're there if the equipment with the registered MAC address is switched on when you pass by, so advertising should only really happen when you try to use the service. That will change over time – modern smartphones constantly monitor for Wi-Fi networks, and connect to them when they are available, which will be enough for O2 to consider you fair game for a text message.

But at least O2 won't be tracking usage or browsing habits, nor will it be filtering content beyond what's legal and in contrast to the mobile network. All UK mobile operators are required to block access to pornography and other adult services over their mobile networks until the customer presents proof of age, but it seems the same company can provide internet access over Wi-Fi without any such obligation: a strange double standard that surely can't be allowed to continue.

So O2's free Wi-Fi network really is free at the point of delivery, and we can probably put up with receiving a text message every time we try to use it, though if that turns out to be every time we walk past a store offering O2's branded access then it could get too annoying to tolerate. ®

* The MAC address is an Ethernet thing, as opposed to the IMEI phone identifier – the latter is illegal to change, the former you can change to your heart's content and probably steal a bit of free Wi-Fi from the free Wi-Fi network, which seems a little pointless.

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