A major add-on for any broadband package is access to a UK national WiFi network. This is helpful because it means you can get online with your laptop or tablet without using your mobile data, or alternatively you can stay connected in areas without mobile coverage. This article takes a look at the major providers.
When comparing providers, one of the most critical aspects is the number of hotspots. More hotspots mean that you can get online in more locations.
|Vendor||No. Of Hotspots||Additional Features|
|BT WiFi||About 5 million||Access to 3 million hotspots across Europe with fon|
|Sky WiFi||About 20 thousand||Reported to average higher speed than BT WiFi|
|Virgin Media WiFi||About 20 thousand||Access to WiFi on London Underground|
|O2 WiFi||About 7 thousand||Free to use, no need to be on O2|
There are four major vendors:
BT takes a rather unique approach to its WiFi network, which is free to access for BT Broadband customers. Firstly it runs a large network of hotspots at business sites (such as pubs, cafes etc) under the official BT Openzone scheme. On top of this BT, by default, make a BT WiFi hotspot on every single home broadband connection that they sell. This connection is isolated from the owner’s actual home network, so it is secure. With this dual approach BT has a huge network of access points with 5 million across the UK.
The performance of the WiFi network is not guaranteed (as it could be running on some very slow home broadband) but in general it performs well and is enough to get most tasks done. BT advertise that you’ll generally get up to 10Mbps.
In addition to this, BT has a partnership with fon, a European company that runs WiFi networks across a significant number of European countries (and has similar partnerships with other national broadband vendors) so you can also access any fon supported network.
To access BT WiFi in the UK you can connect to a public hotspot and enter your details in the browser window. Alternatively you can download the BT WiFi app, which will authenticate your device automatically to any BT WiFi network without opening your browser. This makes for a very seamless user experience.
Sky WiFi (aka The Cloud)
Sky acquired The Cloud in 2011 and since 2012, Sky Broadband customers get free access to it. Sky WiFi is based on this robust network across the UK. Unlike BT’s hybrid approach, Sky’s WiFi is based solely on The Cloud’s official hotspots.
Sky’s website states that it has 20,000 WiFi hotspots available across the UK and that Sky Broadband customers will have no data usage when accessing them.
To connect to a hotspot with your device there is a one time registration that links your device with your Sky account using the Sky WiFi app. From then on it should just be a case of logging in.
In a 2013 study commissioned by Sky, they found the Sky WiFi gave an average connection speed of 6.9Mbps compared with 3.2Mbps from BT WiFi. The skeptical would note that this study was commissioned by Sky themselves.
Check out Sky Broadband with Sky WiFi included.
Virgin Media WiFi
Virgin Media WiFi is available to all Virgin Media Broadband users and uses The Cloud (owned by Sky). Therefore the locations, speed and coverage of this network will be the same as that available from Sky.
In 2015 it was rumoured that Virgin was to implement a home broadband sharing scheme like BT but there has been no sign of it to date.
Of course, relevant for Londoners is that Virgin Media run WiFi on the London Underground and so customers are able to offer this connectivity for free as part of their WiFi network.
O2’s WiFi network is available to all users that will register with it. An app is provided to help find hotspots, but it does not allow you to login without opening a browser window as BT WiFi does (unless you are an O2 customer in which case the WiFi network will detect an O2 sim card in your device and automatically log you in).
At present it has limited coverage (about 7000 hotspots in the UK) with O2 stores providing the bulk of coverage and then big venues or chains on a case by case basis.
However, there is no need to be an O2 customer so it is completely free. This therefore makes it appealing if it is covering an area that you need. In fact, you could use it alongside the WiFi access from one of the providers above.