UK mobile network operator O2 plans to build its own Wi-Fi network, aiming to double the number of premium Wi-Fi hotspots currently offered by BT Openzone and The Cloud combined by 2013.
The news follows reports that satellite TV broadcaster BSkyB will buy The Cloud. O2 said it will start immediately to replace the 450 Cloud sites that it presently uses in the UK.
BT Openzone claims two million Wi-Fi hotspots, but this includes home-based units that owners can decide to switch on or off.
O2 said it will allow non-O2 as well as O2 customers free access to its Wi-Fi service. Late yesterday it was unclear if non-O2 customers would be able to make Skype calls via the O2 hotspots.
O2 said it was increasing its capital spending on networks by 25% this year, but did not give details. "These investments will allow O2 to offer customers access to a suite of layered technologies, including 2G, Edge, 3G, 4G, HSPA+ and Wi-Fi, seamlessly, simply and at speed," it said in a statement.
It said it would extend the reach and scale of O2 Wi-Fi through partnerships with strategic venues, such as shops, restaurants, retail outlets and outdoor and indoor locations across the UK.
London mayor Boris Johnson earlier called for the capital to become a free Wi-Fi zone in time for the 2012 Olympics.
O2's new business development director Tim Sefton said O2 had pioneered an explosion of mobile data over the past three years.
"Only 20% of people who have access to free public Wi-Fi on O2 tariffs use it actively, despite the majority of devices being Wi-Fi enabled," he said.
He said Wi-Fi technology had "great potential", but customers were put off by complexity in activation, uncertainty about where Wi-Fi was free and the variable quality of the current experience.
O2 Wi-Fi would offer a free, simple and sustained customer experience, he said.