The Cloud to Spread Across the UK

By Eric Griffith

March 07, 2003

How better to spread thousands of hotspots across England, Wales, and Scotland than to integrate Wi-Fi in that most cherished of public institutions, the local pub? That's the goal of The Cloud.

In the United States, the obvious partner for a Wi-Fi hotspot network was coffee shops -- we're all addicted to caffeine. So what does it say about the United Kingdom when their potentially larges hotspot network will probably be setup in pubs?

Not what us Yankees think. Pubs these days are more than just pints of ale -- they may be the perfect place for business and casual Wi-Fi users to get access.

"The pub is a different place than it used to be -- they're high end places, lots with gourmet food; they're the business place to go for lunch in London and around it." This according to George Polk, the managing director for The Cloud, a UK-wide Wi-Fi hotspot network with the potential to be the largest in Europe.

Inspired Broadcast Networks (IBN), a creator of pay-to-use digital entertainment kiosk, is the company behind The Cloud. IBN, with Leisure Link Group (LLG), runs a network of some 90,000 coin-operated "amusement terminals" at some 30,000 locations. The vast majority are analog boxes such as games or food machines, according to Polk. But new digital terminals, called Itbox, are being deployed in pubs around the UK for various forms of entertainment, including gaming, betting, or digital jukeboxes.

IBN has contracted with wireless powerhouse Ericsson to get hardware with Wi-Fi capabilities to install on the Itboxes, making them instant hotspot access controllers. Each Wi-Fi Itbox will be hooked to a DSL line leased from British Telecom (BT), connecting the terminals back to IBN's network operations center.

The Cloud's current schedule is to have 250 hotspots running by the end of April with free service to customers on a trial basis. By the end of June they plan to have 1000 commercial sites, going to 3000 by the end of the year.

The initial commercial service will be part of BT Openzone, the telecom's own hotspot service. While IBN will run the network, BT OpenZone users can roam on to it. Polk says the goal is that end-users will never even know they're not on a non-OpenZone node.

"We want to stay out of the way of the user and provider. We want to reinforce their brand," says Polk. This is unlike a hotspot aggregator like Boingo Wireless which has it's brand visible to the end-user even when using a different company's network. "We turn ourselves inside out to reinforce our customer's brand."

Eventually, Polk hopes most major cellular carriers and system integrators will allow their users to roam on The Cloud. The traffic will simply shift to the end-users provider, who will share revenue with The Cloud.

Users without an account with a partner will be offered pay-as-you-go service, purchased directly from the Itbox terminals. Pricing for that option has not been set yet.

"The reason we're doing such a large deployment at first blush is that the only way Wi-Fi will be viable is that if you look for a site, there's one nearby," says Polk. "I have Wi-Fi at home and the office, but I don't look elsewhere in London because there are only something like six sites."

Polk says the potential for getting a number of hotspot users is enormous, but only once the word is out about the availability of access. Luckily for him, The Cloud's launch coincides nicely with the launch of Intel's Centrino mobile platform, a chip set that will bring embedded Wi-Fi to most new laptops shipped in the next year. Intel's on a crusade to make sure hotspots become household knowledge with an ad campaign and co-marketing deals with hotspot hotels and carriers the world over, including IBN. The Cloud will be part of the Centrino launch even in London.

As part of the Intel program, IBN will have signs at pubs running The Cloud to indicate the venue has Wi-Fi access -- signs which will now be seen by the people who make 280 million visits a year to their local pub.

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