Orange plans to launch a Wi-Fi service in the UK on Monday, the company announced yesterday. It also said it will deliver a unified mobile data and Wi-Fi service in the UK, modelled on an existing service offered by the firm in France, starting in January.

Orange hasn't built its own Wi-Fi network in the UK, but will offer customers access to hotspots operated by BT Openzone, BT's hotspot service, and WeRoam, TOGEWAnet's hotspot company. The service will also include hotspots operated by Orange France in Accor Hotels in the UK. The network will consist of 1,700 UK hotspots and 12,000 globally.

Orange customers will initially send a text message from their mobile phones to use the hotspots, and receive a username and password to sign into the network using their laptops. The message automatically triggers the addition of the £6-per-hour charge to the customer's bill. They can use their 60 minutes of access over multiple connections within a 24-hour period. The price is the same to access any Orange hotspot around the world.

Starting in January, Orange customers will be able to choose to subscribe to Business Everywhere, a new service that combines cellular data and Wi-Fi under one billing plan. "It brings together GPRS [General Packet Radio Service], 3G, Wi-Fi, billing and service into one integrated offering," said Alastair MacLeod, vice-president of business solutions for Orange UK.

Orange isn't releasing specific pricing plans until the launch of the service in January. The plans will cost a set amount each month but won't include a specified limit to usage on any of the networks. Instead, a customer's account will tick down based on usage of any of the networks, each of which carry different tariffs. Access to 3G and GPRS networks will be charged based on how much data users download and charges for access to the Wi-Fi network will be based on minutes of use. The cost per minute or per MB will vary depending on the price plan.

Business Everywhere customers initially will buy a data card that operates on GPRS, 3G and Wi-Fi networks and will receive client software developed in-house by Orange and France Telecom. The software offers a single user interface regardless of which network the customer connects to.

In the future, customers will have more choice of devices, including the potential to connect a 3G and Wi-Fi phone via Bluetooth to a laptop for access, MacLeod said.

Orange is behind its competitors in the UK in offering Wi-Fi. Vodafone and O2 launched hotspot services in 2003. Vodafone, O2, T-Mobile and BT each offer different types of services that combine Wi-Fi and mobile data access in integrated billing plans.

MacLeod claimed Orange didn't want to offer a stand-alone Wi-Fi service previously, and said now is the the best time for delivering a combined cellular data and Wi-Fi service. "The reason we're doing this now is that we want to give customers the choice and flexibility to use whatever suits their needs," he said. Wi-Fi is now an essential offering to give customers their choice of access technologies, MacLeod added.