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U.K. jumps into Wi-Fi networking

British telecom operator BT Group launches the country's first three hot spots with wireless networking. Other major wireless providers are expected to follow.

The United Kingdom got its first public Wi-Fi hot spots Monday.

It was one of the last countries in Western Europe where wireless local area networks (LANs) using Wi-Fi standards hadn't penetrated into cafes or airports. But two weeks ago, the British government lifted a ban on the commercial use of the 2.4GHz bandwidth, where Wi-Fi networks broadcast their signals.

British operator BT Group launched the first three wireless hot spots in the United Kingdom on Monday, the company said in a statement. It's expected that other major wireless providers in the country will match BT's efforts, said Rob Enderle, research fellow at Giga Information Group. But the impact on the market will likely be limited to the British Isles because Wi-Fi was already widely used in most Western European countries, Enderle said.

"It'll be a localized land rush," he said.

These wireless networks can download Web pages at speeds much quicker than a digital subscriber line (DSL). But their drawbacks include a range of less than 300 feet and notoriously porous security. Despite that, Wi-Fi networks--also known as 802.11b--have grown in popularity, finding a place in millions of businesses and homes worldwide.

BT's "BT Openzone," the name it's giving its Wi-Fi subscription service, follows the lead of U.S. carriers, one of which has already added wireless Internet access into its mix of offerings with others likely to follow.

VoiceStream Wireless sells Internet access based on Wi-Fi at about 600 Starbucks throughout the United States. Nextel Communications said it intends to add Wi-Fi to its stable of offerings. In Japan, NTT DoCoMo has begun a wireless hot spot service as well.

In the United Kingdom, BT said it plans to have 20 hot spots by August and 400 by June 2003. It wants to sell the service mostly to the business traveler. Its initial price for unlimited service at any of the hot spots is well over $100 per month, BT said. Among the first locations to offer BT's services is the Hilton hotel at Heathrow airport.