Free wi-fi hotspots

In a curious deal inked last week, BT has joined forces with Spanish social wifi outfit FON.
By social wifi, I mean that you share a chunk of your wifi connection with …

8th October 2007 at 9:32 am

In a curious deal inked last week, BT has joined forces with Spanish social wifi outfit FON.

By social wifi, I mean that you share a chunk of your wifi connection with strangers and get yourself free access through other members’ routers. If enough people do this, then the globe theoretically gets covered with ‘free’ wifi access for people on the move.

All the blurb talks about giving up a small percentage of your broadband connection. The small print says this is 512kbps. It wasn’t so long ago that this was the maximum speed of a connection.

Anyway, looking more closely, you find that Skype and Google, as well as BT, are putting money into FON. I seem to remember that BT floated off its mobile operation, O2. Could this be a sneaky way back in to mobile telephony? Skype provides free calls over the internet. FON gives free access to the internet. Put two and two together…

But don’t get excited. Mobile phone coverage is hugely better than FON coverage, even with BT throwing in some of its Openzone hotspots. Not all of them though, it’s reserving some as Premium hotspots.

I checked out a few potential locations. All you have to do is throw a postcode into the hotspot finder. First of all, where I live – in a kind of outer London village – there’s nothing. You have to sit in someone’s front garden a couple of miles away. But it’s early days. The service only kicked off last Thursday.

Central London shows a lot more hotspots. But where do business people really want hotspots and where do they pay through the nose for them? Airports. Slap in the Heathrow postcode, TW5, and get nothing. Oh dear. But Terminal One sports a couple of Openzones. I guess they’re denoted as ‘premium’ by BT.

In due course, the density of free access points will increase. It will potentially grow faster than any kind of official wifi rollout. It is claimed to be secure because it uses an encrypted ‘visitor’ channel quite separate from your normal wifi connection. If you are a BT customer, it’s built in to your router. If you’re not, you buy a ‘cheap’ router which can split the signal. It costs between 35 and 45 Euros depending on model.

If you do decide to join the FON community, you would do well to check with your ISP. Some, in fact most, don’t like you sharing your bandwidth with others. BT, of course, is one of the exceptions.


David Tebbutt is an award-winning columnist and feature writer who specialises on the subject of using software and technology to increase business productivity. He's an analyst with Freeform Dynamics but, in previous lives, wrote for Director magazine, Real Business and was also editor of Personal Computer World.

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  1. Assume that this will only be useful during the day as in the evenings my supposed 8mb connection can go down to as little as 56k. They should spend their money on trying to get the speeds to match what they offer first. All the ISPs keep on trying to get new customers when the current network obviously can’t cope. Would love to have the option of cable but it’s not available in my area.

  2. No doubt they brag ‘up to’ 8MB, not telling you that this is only achievable in the dead of night or when the kids are at school.

  3. Just received this on mail… Just imagine sitting in McDonalds eating your Big Mac over your laptop with sauce and gerkhins dropping on to your keyboard, lovely. I’d be wary of one of the scallys that hangs around them taking off with my laptop.

  4. Craig Dewe says:

    I’m not sure how BT will approach it (or screw it up) but FON is great here in Madrid. They’ve covered one popular area of the city, Chueca, with FON access and it’s really taking off.

    Just give FON some time and see what happens, lots of people have jumped on board here in a short time. As for BT, well they’re your problem sorry…

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