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BT lures consumers with free Wi-Fi

The U.K. carrier aims to hook people on its Wi-Fi services with a week of free access, a new pay-as-you-go billing plan and cheaper hot-spot set-up costs for wireless providers.

BT is hoping to tempt more people into using its Wi-Fi services by reducing the cost of setting up a hot spot and by offering free Wi-Fi access during the last week of January.

The telephone service provider, which currently runs about 1,700 hot spots in the United Kingdom under its Openzone brand, is hoping to expand this to more than 4,000 hot spots by the summer. To reach this target, the company has reduced the cost of "Openzone in-a-Box" from ?400 ($727) to ?250 ($455). Openzone in-a-Box includes everything required by a broadband-equipped small or midsize organization to set up a Wi-Fi hot spot.

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As part of the expansion, BT announced on Wednesday an alliance with McDonald's to equip the fast-food restaurant chain with Wi-Fi Internet access throughout the United Kingdom.

To further promote Wi-Fi, BT will offer free Internet access from any of its Openzone hot spots during "Wireless Broadband Week," which falls between Jan. 26 and Feb. 1. BT said that during this promotional week, both new and old users with a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop or personal digital assistant (PDA) will be offered seven days' unlimited wireless access to the Internet without charge.

Additionally, BT has introduced a new pay-as-you-go Openzone subscription aimed at occasional Wi-Fi users who want to be billed by the minute. The new service, which does not require a contract or subscription, will cost 20 pence (36 cents) per minute. Users also have the option to purchase a one-hour pass for ?6 ($11) or subscribe to the service for ?10 ($18) per month, which includes two hours of access.

Pay-as-you-go billing was one of the factors that fueled the U.K. boom in mobile phones. However, it is less attractive to operators than subscription packages, since these lock in consumers. Many users are wary of paying subscription fees for a service they may only use when traveling, according to industry observers.

Steve Andrews, managing director of products and enterprises at BT, said the telecommunications company was determined to make Wi-Fi more accessible to a greater audience. "The launch of the pay-as-you-go service is a significant development that will really drive up use in the mass consumer market," he said. "The new price for Openzone in-a-box will encourage more independent local businesses to install a BT Openzone hot spot on their premises and benefit from a new revenue stream."

Intel on Monday said it will support BT in promoting its Wireless Broadband Week. Andrew Allison, director of mobile computing at Intel UK and Ireland, said more people need to experience firsthand what Wi-Fi can do: "Wireless Broadband Week is about giving even more people the chance to experience the benefits of Wi-Fi, taking one further step to unwire Britain," he said.

Munir Kotadia of ZDNet UK reported from London. Reuters contributed to this report.