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Hey, O2 punters: Kiss goodbye to 4 MEELLION* Openzone hotspots

Mobe network pulls out of BT's Wi-Fi, goes it alone

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O2 customers will be kicked off BT Openzone, the UK-wide public Wi-Fi network, from 1 July.

By ending its wireless sharing deal with BT, O2 will be reduced to relying on just 8,000 hotspots nationally, whereas Openzone has four million or so sites*. The Wi-Fi hotspots can be used by nearby laptops, phones, tablets and other gadgets to connect to the internet over the air, which is usually preferable to relying on slower 2G or 3G services.

O2 says its Wi-Fi network is growing, but its punters are already lamenting the imminent loss of connectivity.

Customers, including El Reg reader Jonathan Nish who tipped us off about it first, were informed of the change in service by email. The mobile operator has also erected a helpful website explaining how to find a hotspot and change one's device settings so that it won't drop the cellular data connection every time it gets a sniff of an unusable Openzone spot.

O2 has been busy building its own Blighty-spanning wireless network, and launched O2 Wifi as a separate business back in January 2011. Back then it was clear that the agreements between O2 and public Wi-Fi providers The Cloud and BT Openzone, which allowed O2 customers to roam freely around the trio's networks once logged in, wouldn't last long as O2 became a competitor instead of a customer.

And this is how O2 became a competitor: O2 Wifi touts its service for free to anyone and everyone, and makes its money selling wireless connectivity to venues who recoup the cost by displays ads on the landing page (shown when first connected to the network), and ads pushed over SMS.

The Cloud, which was free to O2 customers until February last year, has also been migrating towards charging venues instead of users: it has signed up various pub chains and other locations interested in offering free access to their customers.

BT Openzone, on the other hand, created a massive network by sneaking itself into BT's home and business Wi-Fi-enabled routers: every house, flat and office can become a node in the Openzone army of hotspots. Access is free to BT Broadband customers, but everyone else has to pay.

Many parts of the world, notably the US, expect Wi-Fi to be free, though such expectations often reflect punitively high rates of cellular data connectivity, which encourages users to seek out cheaper or free Wi-Fi networks for accessing the internet. Compared to the rest of the world, the UK's data charges are low, so Wi-Fi here is perceived as a premium offering that can still be billed for in some circumstances.

Wi-Fi use is set to increase dramatically over the next few years, as a technology called Hotspot 2 permits automated authentication, providing secure access (guaranteed by one's mobile operator, rather than the venue hosting the Wi-Fi) and seamless roaming between Wi-Fi and cellular networks, which will certainly change how Wi-Fi is used and could challenge the way people make money from it, too. ®

Updated to Add

*Since this article was published we've been contacted by distraught O2 spokespersons who say that actually O2 customers have never had access to the huge majority of BT's millions of hotspots, so they aren't really losing anything of massive importance here. Our thinking that O2 customers had such access is natural enough, because BT said so back in 2010:

BT has announced unlimited access to 1.5 million BT FON and BT Openzone wi-fi hotspots across the UK for millions of BT Total Broadband users. These include O2's mobile customers ...

BT had also previously said that the Openzone hotspots usable by O2 customers alone numbered 65,000.

This was all widely reported at the time, without any apparent attempt by O2 to contradict this erroneously inflated view of the service it was offering. However the company is now keen that everyone should realise that the BT partnership didn't actually offer O2 mobile users anything very good: O2 now says that just "approximately 4.2k" of BT's hotspots (the "premium managed" Openzone ones, seemingly) are accessible to its customers right now and those are the only ones they could ever use, so this is all they'll be losing in July.

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