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Wi-fi hotspots or not-spots – how good is wi-fi on the go?

It doesn’t strike me as particularly surprising that the latest survey shows that two thirds of wi-fi users experience signal problems, including slow speeds and connection drop outs. But what’s it like on-the-go?

I’ve sat many a time tapping my fingers waiting for a page to load on my wi-fi connection at home.

Of course, it’s hard to tell whether it’s the wi-fi connection playing up, someone else in the house eating up the bandwidth, or problems with the line itself.

Wi-fi on the move

Broadband Choices’ survey seems to focus mainly on wi-fi in the home, but what about wi-fi hotspots that you can access when you’re out and about? In a situation where any number of people are trying to access the same wi-fi connection at the same time, surely it’s a recipe for a snail-paced disaster?

Press releases from BT Wi-fi (formally known as BT Openzone) periodically drop into my inbox with the latest number of wi-fi hotspots it has on offer. It’s now over four million apparently.

And although The Cloud, part of BSkyB, doesn’t have the same size of network as BT, it also offers wi-fi access for people on the go in places like Eat and Wagamamas. It claims to connect almost a million devices to its wi-fi hotspots every month.

Wi-fi vs 3G

But are either of their wi-fi hotspot offerings any good? Vince Russell, managing director of The Cloud, says ‘wi-fi is going to be vital to share the burden of all this data with the 3G network’. And so he would as wi-fi is his business, but as I, and I’m sure many others, will know from personal experience – connecting via 3G on your mobile can be unbearably slow.

So using a wi-fi hotspot network is certainly tempting, but are their offerings really fast enough? I’ve heard more than once that people have turned off their access to BT’s Openzone wi-fi because it was slower than the mobile 3G connection they could get. And I recently heard from a Which? member who said that successfully logging on to BT’s wi-fi hotspots was ‘a very rare occurrence’ having tried in many locations using different devices.

If these wi-fi hotspots are free, maybe we have nothing to complain about. But if we’re expected to pay, we’re definitely within our rights to demand a good service. Perhaps providers should concentrate on investing in the quality of their wi-fi offerings, rather than the quantity of hotspots?


O2, the first UK network to launch the iPhone, include in their iPhone packages access to BT Openzone wireless hotspots across the UK. The idea behind this is that the iPhone seamlessly connects to the internet using GPRS, 3G data and wireless hotspots using the best available connection without the user having to switch connections manually. When Orange and other UK networks started offering the iPhone, they likewise included access to BT Openzone in their iPhone packages. However, Orange iPhone customers have not received access to BT Openzone in a useable way. BT Openzone identifies O2 iPhone customers using the MAC address of each iPhone, which is seamless to the user. Orange chose a different authentication process for BT Openzone whereby customers have to enter their Orange mobile number and a very awkward password the first time they use BT Openzone. According to the help and support section of Orange’s web site (recently removed), “the next time you are in range of a BT Openzone hotspot your iPhone will connect automatically without asking you for your phone number or password“, which should ultimately give the same seamless experience that O2 customers receive. However, this is not the case, because all Orange users are finding they have to re-enter their Orange mobile number and awkward password every time they use a BT Openzone hotspot. The impact of this fault is:

Instead of receiving the intended seamless switching between mobile data and wireless data, customers have to re-authenticate manually every time they use a BT Openzone hotpot.
Whenever a user moves within range of a BT Openzone hotspot while using an app that is already connected to the internet via GPRS or 3G data, the iPhone connects to BT Openzone which immediately cuts off the app’s connection to the internet, because BT Openzone doesn’t provide internet connectivity until the user manually switches to Safari and re-authenticates or uses a cumbersome app that Orange released as an unsuccessful workaround.

Orange’s press release on 9th November 2009 when they released the iPhone 3GS stated “The first time you connect to a hotspot you will need to enter your mobile phone number and WiFi password, after that your iPhone will connect automatically“. Lots of Orange customers added comments to this press release, hosted on Orange’s own web site, complaining that the BT Openzone service does not function as promised but Orange has since removed the comments in order to cover up its failure.


i bought an o2 dongle on the basis it would connect to bt openzone hot spots.

i NEVER managed to connect to one trying over a period of 2 years – and NEVER got anywhere with the o2 help teams.


I often just use my 3 MiFi if there is network coverage. It can save a lot of messing about with logging into wi-fi networks. Wi-fi has become so common that it can be difficult to work out which network is available and signal strength is not a reliable indicator of which one to try first.

Rosemary says:
13 August 2012

I have always found the BT Openzone to be useless. Almost any time I tried to connect to it, it didn’t work. Now I’ve left BT and get my internet from UTV. If I’m out and about, I use an O2 internet dongle which has been 100% reliable.

Happy WiFi user says:
15 August 2012

If you have trouble on Openzone (BT WiFi) as a BT customer, try calling their Helpdesk – they’re really helpful and in my experience the problem is normally with the device not the service.

As a mobile customer – its less easy as only O2 has anything like a decent experience (we’ve tried 3 of them so far and Orange blamed us and said we clearly didn’t know how to use the service…our fault I assume).

Just remember in busy places at busy times bandwidth will be contended – that’s life!

Stefan says:
13 August 2012

I have BT Openzone access as part of my mobile phone monthly contract. You may associate it with the service that BT publish as their BT wifi package. Do not make that mistake. BT Openzone LIght would be a more descriptive name. Almost always an attempt to log in will result in being told that your mobile service provider does not provide access at that particular site. Getting in is very rare indeed and is likely to be at a location where you have good 3G anyway. In my view it’s little better than useless and dissapointing.

The Cloud fairs better. You have to log in each time which is a bit of a pain but hardly a show stopper. You are likely to have more luck with The Cloud than BT wifi and you are not paying for it!

(Sent from my iPhone on a very slow 2g connection. No wifi around here!)


I’m supposed to get access to BT as I’m an O2 customer, but whenever I try to access it I get directed to the Openzone page, which wants me to log in. Then doesn’t provide any obvious place to log in!


BT Openzone hotspot numbers include large numbers of BTFON hotspots “provided” by private individuals through their HomeHubs ( if they havent disabled the facility).
These by their very nature are likely to give very poor reception outside the house and so are probably pretty useless.
BT Openzone keep changing the naming system for their different types of hotspots which doesnt help either.

Ross says:
23 April 2013

I can testify that the FON network is outstanding. 5mb speed mostly very easy to connect and you do NOT need to be a BT customer to have this FON to share with since FON is a separate company who just happen to be partnered up with BT. you can buy the