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BT will compete with The Cloud on unwiring UK cities: The telecoms giant said that they will be working with Intel to unwire 12 cities, starting with Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, and Westminster; six others haven’t yet been named. The company says they will work closely with local councils to focus initial rollouts on areas the cities deem important, such as deprived areas. Other cities may want handheld video for municipal workers. The first phase will be up and running by Feb 2007.
With BT’s emerging UMA focus—that’s unlicensed mobile access, or a seamless merge of Wi-Fi networks and cell networks for phone calls—offering more Wi-Fi over large areas offers them more opportunity to serve more calls at lower cost, and possibly with higher quality. Cell service, UMA, and metro-scale Wi-Fi all go hand in hand. BT currently offers a limited cell plus Bluetooth service, but will add Wi-Fi to some cell phones and plans in third quarter.
BT’s group director of mobility is quoted in this story about the interest by smaller towns. They were “inundated” with requests and will be “happy to work in partnership with them.” Some cities may co-invest with BT on providing service.
The Cloud, a hotspot network, announced plans in January to cover nine city centres with Wi-Fi, including the City of London, Manchester, and Birmingham. Birmingham has scored two goals here: they’ll have local Wi-Fi competition.
In Edinburgh, there’s particular interest because it would be the first city in Scotland to have city-wide coverage.
The Cloud’s UltraWiFi offering provides unlimited usage on its network for £11.99 ($22.50) per month with 1-year commitment: The subscription will be available starting 1 July 2006. This is a shot across the bow to every single other Wi-Fi provider in the UK, where rates are typically astoundingly and irritatingly high compared to the U.S. and Asia. Europe has generally remained at a two to three times multiple over prices in those regions.
UltraWiFi comes in two flavors: Monthly for £11.99 with a one-year commitment, and weekly at the same rate of £11.99 but on a pay-as-you-go basis. That is, a week of unlimited Wi-Fi (any week you choose) is the same as a month without the ongoing commitment.
Because The Cloud has over 7,000 locations, including railroad stations, hotels, and airports, this pricing should produce a squeeze on competitors operating in similar venues, notably T-Mobile UK. The Cloud will start offering city centre service in the City of London soon, and in eight other UK centres in the coming months. This kind of pricing and coverage makes Wi-Fi a practical alternative to mobile phone service, or at least a good complement for dual-mode phones. The Guardian writes more about this.
In the U.S., T-Mobile offers unlimited Wi-Fi at about 7,000 locations (mostly retail, but some airports) for $20 (£11)/month for voice subscribers or $30 (£16)/month for others (1-year commitment), or $40 (£22)/month on a month-to-month basis. In the UK, T-Mobile charges £23.50 ($44) per month for unlimited usage. That’s a huge differential; it may boil down to which venues people use.
Update: An alert reader noted that T-Mobile UK has a very aggressive 3G cellular data plan that throws in Wi-Fi access. Sign up with a 12-month plan for Web ‘n’ Walk Professional and get a PC Card, quasi-unlimited 3G service, and 12 months of unlimited Wi-Fi service for £20 ($38) per month. The card is £60 with a 12-month plan or free with an 18-month commitment. (Quasi-unlimited? Like most cell operators, T-Mobile says any word means whatever they want it to mean. A long footnote explains that usage of more than 2 GB of data transfer per month will be scrutinized, and you could be throttled down after two consecutive months of such use. VoIP is prohibited.) In the US, T-Mobile offers unlimited GPRS plus unlimited Wi-Fi to voice subscribers for $50 per month with a year’s commitment.