BT has announced plans to set up a Wi-Fi 'cloud' covering 12 UK cities, combining local authority Wi-Fi usage with its own Openzone commercial hotspot access.

The first cities to get the Wi-Fi treatment will be Birmingham, Edinburgh, Leeds and Liverpool, while existing 'hotzones' in Cardiff and Westminster which will be expanded. BT's involvement, along with existing projects from The Cloud and others, mean municipal wireless is underway in the UK.

Each wireless city will be different, according to the local authority's priorities, with some putting wireless CCTV first while others look for mobile worker access, said Steve Andrews, BT Retail's chief of converged communications services.

Contrasting BT's stance with that of US service providers, who have opposed municipal Wi-Fi, Andrews said, at the Wireless Event in London: "You can never stop technology moving. The best thing is to get on it and make it valuable to your customers."

Despite BT's support, opinions still vary concerning the role of municipal Wi-Fi. "It's getting disproportionate attention," said Magnus Gunnarsson, vice-president of product management at mesh vendor Firetide. "It's still in the kick-tyre mode."

Municipal hotzones such as Philadelphia get coverage, but more mesh wireless is being implemented on private campuses or indoors, Gunnarsson said. "If you look at how many nodes are deployed in Philadelphia, it's about as many as we deploy in a medium-sized warehouse," he added.

Around 75 percent of Firetide's business is in buildings and private campuses.

But rival mesh vendor Strix disagrees. "We've sold thousands of nodes at Tempe Arizona," said Nan Chen, vice-president of marketing at Strix, referring to a municipal wireless city, covered last year. Neighbouring cities in Arizona, as well as others elsewhere, are signing up to buy thousands more, he added.

According to Chen, service providers will either jump willingly for municipal wireless networks, or ultimately be forced to accept them, as has previously happened with disruptive technologies, including wide-area ethernet services and IP.

Local services on the networks will include wireless access to information such as car parking and local listings, as well as traffic monitoring. Also in the mix is wireless broadband to local homes, and mobile device access, as voice on Wi-Fi becomes more commonplace, said Andrews.

Partners in the programme include Intel, Alcatel and Motorola, but the provider of mesh nodes is still open, according to one mesh equipment provider at the Wireless Event.

New services such as voice will require different login procedures, since phones don't have the big screen and full keyboard of a laptop – behind the scenes, BT's Openzone and other providers are adopting technology that will let phones get on quickly at hotspots. Systems integrator Quiconnect is linking Openzone hotspots to a hub, and providing links for authentication and billing.

"We want to support more applications, and the best way to do this is to use partners," said Julie Ragbourne, head of Openzone wholesale and international roaming at BT. The main focus of the Quiconnect deal is to allow roaming to Wi-Fi networks abroad, the first being Kubi Wireless in Spain.

This story first appeared on