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U.K. weighs in on Wi-Fi

Internet cafes could go wireless if the government accepts a proposal to license commercial use of 802.11b, which currently isn't allowed in Britain.

Internet cafes could go wireless if the government accepts a proposal to license commercial use of 802.11b, which currently isn't allowed in Britain.

The U.K. government has been advised to end the restrictions that prevent the commercial use of the 2.4GHz spectrum band that is used by the 802.11b standard. see related story: Wireless workplaces asking for trouble

If implemented, this would allow British companies to operate "Wi-Fi hotspots" in areas such as airports and cafes. Laptop and PDA users who own an 802.11b card would be able to get high-speed Internet access whenever they entered a building that operated a public wireless local area network (LAN).

Such access could be charged by the minute, or could even be free as an added incentive when goods are purchased. Currently, such public-access services are not allowed in the United Kingdom--unlike in America where companies such as Starbucks are able to sell wireless Web access to customers within their stores.

A government-commissioned review of radio spectrum management, published Wednesday, has recommended a more liberal approach to the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. "The constraint on the use of license-exempt bands for the provision of public-access communications services should be removed as soon as possible," advises the report, which was prepared by a team led by Professor Martin Cave of Brunel University.

The 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands are part of the ISM (Instrumentation, Scientific and Medical) spectrum band. In the United Kingdom, it is possible to transmit within the ISM band without a license as long as this is not done for commercial purposes--so firms are prevented from using 802.11b as a way of selling Internet connectivity.

As 802.11b will support data transfers in the region of 5.5 megabits per second (mbps), some analysts have suggested it could be a cheap and effective alternative to 3G.

Other technologies also operate at 2.4GHz, including Bluetooth, but analysts believe that 802.11b would have the greatest commercial potential. It is increasingly being employed within home-networking solutions in the country, where it allows a number of PCs and laptops to be connected to a broadband Internet connection.

A faster wireless LAN technology than 802.11b, 802.11a operates at the 5GHz band. There are still some hurdles to overcome before it can operate in Europe, but it is seen as being a long-term replacement to 802.11b.

Cave believes that allowing commercial unlicensed use of the 2.4GHz and 5GHz would benefit the United Kingdom to the tune of ?500m ($713 million) per year.

He warns that it would not be possible to guarantee the transmission quality, but that is an issue customers would have to make a judgment on. If they need a higher-quality service, they could use a licensed spectrum-based product instead.

Graeme Wearden reported from London.