Virgin Media has been chosen by the UK government to create giant WiFi hot zones in the city centres of Leeds and Bradford to provide free WiFi service to the public (not clear if they have a premium, paid access service as well). You do not have to be a customer of Virgin Mobile to gain access to the network. More cities are expected to get outdoor public free WiFi service, thanks to a UK government initiative to create super connected urban hubs.
Virgin will sell access to other carriers that want to offload 3G and 4G traffic onto the Virgin WiFi network (revenues will be shared with local governments). According to the Financial Times, the UK has launch public tenders in 10 cities and allocated funds of approximately £150m to 10 cities for the creation of these Wi-Fi networks which will be operated by private companies.
If these schemes remind you of the municipal Wi-Fi network deployments in the US around 2005-2007, it’s because they are following the same blueprint. Government issues public tender seeking provider, government kicks in a bit of money (or no money), winning provider bears the cost of rolling out the network and maintaining it, charges money for access (free for limited bandwidth or time), shares revenue with local government.
The difference between yesterday’s deployments and today’s is that Wi-Fi equipment is much better and cheaper, and there is a lot of demand for outdoor Wi-Fi access because people have iPhones and iPads. Whether advertising to these iPhone and iPad owners can cover the cost of running the network as bandwidth demand rises and people become impatient with free lousy service. I believe Virgin and other providers who attempt to unwire city centres, shopping malls, and any other outdoor area frequented by iPhone (and other smartphone) users will have to offer free and premium (paid) service.