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Urban Wi-Fi is back... in Westminster and Kensington

Made in Chelsea gets wireless blanket

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O2 will be providing blanket Wi-Fi coverage on behalf of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, installed into street furniture and providing free connectivity to residents and visitors.

How comprehensive the coverage will be remains to be seen; deployment will start this month and there's no schedule for blanket coverage which is just promised eventually. The system will be part of O2's Wi-Fi operations, which use a mobile phone to authenticate accounts (requiring a one-time registration) and offer unrestricted access to the internet, for free to the user.

O2 reckons venue owners will fund its Wi-Fi operations, with users being presented with a sponsored landing page and logged when coming within range if they've left Wi-Fi switched on. Up to five MAC addresses can be linked to one mobile number, and O2 will consider sending text messages to passing customers, but the telco made it very clear that users will be given the option to opt out of such pushed messages.

This blanket wireless deal with Westminster City Council and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is being painted as O2 Wi-Fi's first customer, yet the local authorities have been in touch to assure us the service is being run "at no cost to the councils or the taxpayer". It is not known how much money is involved.

It's far from the first time that Westminster has tried this; the council is a pioneer of municipal Wi-Fi, having announced "Westminster 4G" back in 2003 – which was apparently going to cost £15m for blanket 802.11b coverage, initially for council staff and equipment. That was followed by the council's "Wireless City Project" in 2005, which was intended to open up the Wi-Fi network to BT Openzone customers.

So it's been almost a decade since the council first announced that everyone in the region would get Wi-Fi, but technology has improved since then: Wi-Fi hotspots are now a lot cheaper, and 802.11n has better range too, not to mention the decreasing cost of backhaul. But the band available to Wi-Fi hasn't changed, and there's a limit to how many times the same channel can be filled.

With O2's backing, municipal Wi-Fi might just happen this time, but we'll be keeping a 3G dongle handy just in case. ®

Updated to clarify the position on funding of the Wi-Fi service.

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