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Why hasn't anyone told me about BT Wifi?

First and foremost I have to admit something quite embarrassing: although I had heard of BT Openzone I had not taken any notice of what it actually was, and I had no idea what BT Fon was either.

I shall assume you are as ignorant as I, and try to explain why I find this fascinating.

This is no less than an Internet revolution.

The Internet is a complicated beast.
The Internet is a simple beast.
The Internet is a complicated system built on simplified concepts that themselves are built on incredibly complicated machines, but is actually quite simple to understand.

Honestly? I don't feel like breaking the Internet down into simple metaphors. I will make a video later this year about how the Internet works, so I'm going to assume you already know.

Here's a really bad video incorrectly explaining things

The Internet is a network of networks.  Your home network uses an ISP to connect to other networks.  This is the Internet. See: simple! The underlying technology is a lot more complicated, but not necessary to understand.

Traditionally this has been done a number of ways but the general idea being that you can connect from home, and when you're out of the house you're out of luck.

Along came mobile data connections which basically do the same thing but without wires, but allow you to move around.  These data connections are still evolving but can suffer from bandwidth problems and congestion.

So, along came public Wifi. If you live outside of a major city, like I do, then you'll know that this hasn't really been a great thing. BT Openzone appeared and allowed customers to connect but you had to rely on BT installing a public access point, or a local business offering it. For me, these sprung up everywhere, but at the wrong time: there were plenty of zones but no (small) devices capable of using them. Now that the devices are all ready the zones have vanished because people weren't using them. Wonderful.

But, wait!

Recently BT have been playing with their cabinets in the street, and laying cable. Assuming they might be laying fibre as part of their 21CN network I had a look online to see if, indeed, that was what they were doing. Within a few days their BT Infinity (VDSL2 FTTC) product was available in my area! Nice!

I have been contemplating for a while whether to move away from my unrestricted, unmetered O2 ADSL2+ connection which has had one outage in the many years I have used it, to BT Infinity which, although it claims to be unrestricted and unmetered, so have a lot of ISPs. It's quite a risk as the amount of data flowing over my network is mind-boggling.

Why change? ADSL2+ = 3Mbps, VDSL2 = 70Mbps (in my location). Obvious really.

Is this relevant? Oh, yeah, sorry...

I looked on the website and checked out the specs for the Homehub and found something that got me utterly intrigued... BT Wifi (formally BT Openzone and BT Fon).

At first glance it is as above: as a BT customer (but not O2 anymore) you have access to BT Wifi free of charge (or you can buy top-ups if you're not a customer). This, initially, seems to suffer from the "nobody has access though" problem mentioned above. Then I read further.

I wanted to put a picture here, but copyright restrictions won't allow it.
Instead, click here and enter your post code or I will scream in your face while you're sleeping.
Done it? Good. Please continue.

BT broadband customers automatically share their unused bandwidth with the rest of the world via Wifi!

There are some points to note:
  • The connection is not encrypted, but that's fine if you're using an encrypted website, for example (such as Google+)
  • You can opt out at any time (if you don't share yours, you cannot use others)
  • The customer always comes first (if you're watching porn in 4k resolution on your home cinema, Joe Bloggs gets throttled back - you get all the bandwidth)
  • The two wireless signals are separated for security
  • And probably other things...
This should take quite a strain off the mobile networks (which are also not encrypted), and I can imagine it will be quite welcome (more on that later). It will, of course, mean that BT's own network will see an increase in traffic, but they've just laid fibre so...

All this does of course mean that you're getting much faster access than currently being offered by the mobile providers. I currently get HSDPA on my Samsung Android mobile and although that is nice and fast, and very reliable in some areas, it's usually a bit cack and unreliable around my home town. It's still not as fast as xDSL via Wifi.

Wifi struggles to hand off between networks, normally, so it probably won't be great for customers in moving vehicles, but while you're waiting at a bus stop or in a train station you might be able to find that you have broadband internet access, and can watch mind-numbing TV, or tell everyone you're waiting for a bus, lol, on Faceache, while you wait.

A revolution?

Well, sort of. I have recently come back from Budapest, Hungary and Wifi was everywhere there - and it's fast. It was like being in a 21st century city. Even so, Budapest had nothing compared to the coverage my home town now has. It's literally a blanket of BT Wifi. No more waiting for porn to download in the bus station! Yay!

O2, on the other hand, have taken a different approach: they are planning on launching free Wifi for everyone. In my area there are only five zones currently enabled and they are all McDonald's but it's a big thing for O2 to do. It hasn't been made clear if they will be attempting the same technology as BT with the Internet-sharing but seen as O2 broadband currently utilise only ADSL technologies it seems unlikely. It would also require new hubs.

What's next?

I'm sure BT are aware of the way the Internet is evolving, and although I did expect the old incumbent to lay down and die it has shown that is more than capable of surviving in this new world; it has evolved itself.

The next step, surely, is wireless mesh networking. Wireless mesh networking would make all of BT's hubs talk to each other, as well as to the customers. This means that if I want to send a file to my neighbour then it will take the direct approach from hub to hub. The problem with this is that the two wireless channels are separate for security so it would take some very smart algorithms to do this, and the data is not encrypted (but may not always need to be).

The Homehubs, so I've read, run on Linux. Linux is more than capable of wireless mesh, internal VLANs, routing and IPv6, which would be needed to achieve such a complicated internet. If BT came up with a better solution: send it to Linux! (Or, yeah, I suppose you could keep it to yourself as a separate package).

Another question is: seen as BT have spent all this money on upgrading their network, have they implemented switching at the cabinets? This would not only give a direct route to my neighbour, it would be much faster, much more reliable and less of a security headache. It would also free up their back-haul, and the wireless signal (if the above was used). I haven't seen anything about this so they probably don't, but I would be very happy to be told I'm wrong.

In conclusion: the revolution that I have envisaged of a true end-user web of internets may still be on its way, and I see BT as taking a first important step. Admittedly, it's not interconnected in the way I would like, but we now have a coverage of Wifi. With the work of the hobbyist mesh networkers, we are well on the way.

Vive la révolution!
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