BT helps itself to Home Hubs for public Wi-Fi

A feature of BT's routers called Fon gives away a percentage of bandwidth from home-based Wi-Fi to passers-by, often without user consent.

Computer Weekly has discovered BT is using home Wi-Fi routers to boost its public hotspot numbers for the Olympics, without the permission of its customers.

A press release circulated by the company today claimed it was close to achieving its goal of 500,000 public hotspots in London by the start of the Games, with more than 475,000 already available.

However, of that latter number, a large proportion belong to existing businesses and home users, rather than brand new public connections, and its public Wi-Fi roll-out in the City of Westminster borough accounted for just 30,000.

Using a feature called Fon, BT is able to siphon off a portion of bandwidth from the wireless connections it provides to homes and offices in order to give the public as a pay as you surf Wi-Fi hotspot.

BT told us Fon was automatically enabled for new broadband customers, meaning many users may be having their connections accessed by the public without any knowledge. However, BT protested that customers were informed of the service within its welcome emails and within the Home Hub guidebook.

Computer Weekly was given a copy of the welcome email, which after scrolling down only informed customers of the free Wi-Fi on offer, rather than the conditions of giving up some bandwidth.

A link to give more details on the free Wi-Fi again did not outline the necessity of relinquishing part of the connection.

Only from yet another link at the bottom of the page and clicking through again did an explanation appear – something only those on the hunt would find.  

Fon has been a feature of BT routers since 2009 and some are positive about the cooperative nature of the service. If customers agree to offer part of their Wi-Fi to the public, they can use other Fon hotspots for free, as well as collect a small portion of the revenues made when their Wi-Fi hotspot is bought.

However, you can only take advantage of this if you know of the service and a number of our readers told us they had never been informed by BT of its existence or the benefits they could receive.

One reader said: “It was [automatically switched on] but as soon as I found out about it - not through BT being forthcoming but through investigation - I switched it off.”

According to Fon’s website the system is secure as it creates two networks, one encrypted personal signal and one public signal. Only registered users can then access the hotspots and it claims to monitor their activity to block any illegal content.

However, with the threat of legislation such as ACTA, it is unclear what would happen if illegal activity had occurred over a connection and who would be held responsible.

Patrick Clark, head of telecoms and partner at law firm Taylor Wessing, said contractually BT is safe as it has the terms and conditions listed on the website for those who want to look for them.

Yet, he admitted it might be trying for the consumer if it was found illegal activity had occurred over their router.

“You would have to demonstrate it was not you committing the illegal activity, which could involve handing over your PC, laptop or any internet connected devices,” Clark told Computer Weekly.

“This would probably present enough doubt to put off a filesharer case as it wouldn’t be worth the £2,000 - £10,000 the music company would win. However, it probably wouldn’t be enough to put off the police investigating child pornography, for example.

“If you are unlucky enough, and even if you didn’t do it, you will find it difficult in the least to clear your name.”

If you want to opt out of BT Fon, click here for the details.   

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