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Mobile operator O2 in the UK will provide free internet to “millions” of residents and visitors in central London by launching Europe’s largest free wi-fi zone, reports the BBC. They will begin installing the network this month.

The service will be rolled out across the boroughs of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea in 2012, and be powered by a system installed on street furniture. WiFi equipment will be attached to lamp-posts and other existing structures on London’s streets, and should be completed by March. The service will be rolled out across the remaining areas over the next 10 years.

John Hunt, from independent broadband review site thinkbroadband.com, said the service would be very popular, particularly for overseas tourists worried about expensive mobile costs.

Mobile operator O2 plans to launch a 15,000-strong nationwide network of free Wi-Fi hotspots located in public places such as coffee shops, and open to customers and non-customers alike. The mobile operator said that the key differentiator of O2’s free Wi-Fi hotspots from other hotspot providers is that it will be “genuinely free”, whether users are O2 customers or not.

When you first connect, you’ll be presented with a request for your name and mobile number, explains The Register. An identifying code is then sent to the phone as an SMS message: type in the code and you’re connected. Adverts will also appear on the splash page.

At present, O2 offers its own customers access to 7,500 hotspots through its partnership with The Cloud and BT Openzone. O2 hopes its own, free hotspot network will double this number by 2013. 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, reports The Register.

O2 first revealed its plans to build a hotspot network in January 2011. The company said at the time it aims to operate double the number of hotspots currently offered by BT Openzone and The Cloud combined by 2013.

Nokia in November 2011 began trialling a free WiFi service in partnership with WiFi specialist Spectrum Interactive. The companies deployed 26 hotspots in phone boxes owned by Spectrum in some of the city’s busiest areas. A large-scale rollout is planned for 2012 depending on the trial’s success.

British Telecom’s Openzone and its partner Fon networks, which claims it has 2.8 million Wi-Fi hotspots in the U.K. and Ireland and its competitor in the UK, The Cloud, with some 22,000 hotspots internationally, are having to compete with “free” WiFi.

A joint venture with BT and Heineken will provide up to 300 pubs and bars with WiFi in the UK. BT Openzone will create the Wi-Fi hotspots by the end of next year.

Initially, 100 locations across London will be equipped with WiFi, with plans to extend WiFi hotspot service to a further 200 pubs across the UK by the end of 2012.

BT customers will be able to use the service for free, but BT’s OpenZone is not free to non-BT customers.

BT has 3 million Wi-Fi spots in the UK, and added 200,000 sites in the last three months.

BSkyB acquired The Cloud last year, with more than 4,000 hotspots. The Cloud now has over 5,000 hotspots thoughout the UK. British Sky Broadcasting, a pay-TV company, says it will leave it to the pub and club owners to decide whether to charge their customers for access.

Before 2008, BT customers had access to The Cloud’s hotspots, but the companies ended their partnership after failing to reach an agreement over commercial terms.

Meanwhile, Virgin Media is rolling out free public Wi-Fi service in parts of London. Virgin Media plans to install WiFi routers in its existing infrastructure, including the street-side cabinets that distribute its cable network into home. At the moment, Virgin is looking into giving non-customers free Wi-Fi access at speeds of 0.5Mbps, while customers will get up to 10Mbps.

Exhibition hall operator EC&O Venues has selected Ruckus Wireless Smart Wi-Fi products for its London premiere event venues: Earls Court and Olympia exhibition halls. With more than 2.2 million visitors every year, Earls Court and Olympia are the first large-scale public venues in the UK to move to higher speed, dual-band (2.4 and 5 GHz) 802.11n Wi-Fi technology capable of supporting speeds of up to 600 Mbps.

Related Dailywireless articles include; UK Gets Free Public WiFi, Europe’s Digital Divide Auction, LTE Spectrum: It’s War, German 4G Auction: It’s Done, Auctions Winding Down in Germany & India, Germany 4G Auctions Begin, Europe to Follow, EU: Global LTE Roaming at 1.8 GHz,

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