BT OpenZone: Free wi-fi on phones not worth the hassle

Posted on by Mike Evans

BT and carriers such as O2 need to get to grips with the flaky "free wifi" offering foisted on iPhone contract customers. It all sounds so attractive but the reality is less than ideal. The main problem is that this free wifi is available only on what BT call "premium hotspots". As far as I can see, these are mainly in Caffe Nero stores. Most OpenZone hotspots are not available, but, once registered, your phone will doggedly lock on to any BT OpenZone signal it finds. The result is that you appear to have wifi (and, of course, no 3G) but there is no internet. In a big city such as London, this happens all the time and you suddenly find you have no connection.

Two months ago I complained to BT and was referred to O2 who, in turn, pushed me back to BT. BT's press office, after listening to the complaint, promised an expert would call back. Two months later I am still waiting.

Yesterday, though, was the final straw. I had just downloaded and installed iOS4 on my iPhone when I noticed that my accounts package, Moneydance, would not sync over my local network. It reported that it could not find the phone. I quickly created a ticket at Moneydance, convinced that their app had been upset by iOS4. Then I discovered 1Password would not sync for the same reason and I began to get suspicious about the network. Although I had a healthy four bars of wifi on the phone, my process of elimination eventually took me to network settings and I was amazed to find I was not connected to my own network but to BT OpenZone. How come? There isn't a Caffe Nero within a mile and I live in a residential area, not known for public hotspots.

The answer was really quite simple. Just as I was downloading iOS4 my next-door neighbour was altruistically opening his wifi router to the public under the guise of "BT OpenZone". This is a new idea where BT broadband customers get various benefits from allowing BT to transmit a hotspot signal from the home router. In the main, such customers can connect to other such home networks around the country. This is all very well, but my "free wifi" service via O2 had just caused me several hours of time in investigating such an obscure problem. 

This is going to happen all the time, and it will happen to other O2 users all the time. I've had to tell the phone to "forget" BT OpenZone and this means I won't be able to use it anywhere, even in Caffe Nero. At the moment this system sucks. Is it beyond the wit of BT to give premium hotspots a different profile so this confusion doesn't happen? Since they don't want to talk about it, I am not likely to find out. 

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