Both Vodafone and Orange are doing deals with BT’s OpenZone operation to add Wi-Fi to the services they offer customers. Neither company, it seems, wants to compete with BT and T-Mobile in owning hotspots in the UK.

Neither company was very specific about what it will offer, or when: “Our service will arrive early in the first quarter of 2004 and will be aimed at business users,” said Vodafone spokesman Paul Stonadge. “We have done a wholesale deal, in order to make a retail offering to our customers.” Orange, which owns hotspots in France, has started a three-month trial with OpenZone for business customers in the UK.

Stonadge did not rule out Vodafone owning hotspots in the future, but said that at the moment, retail deals were preferable to rolling out hardware. With OpenZone’s coverage, the plan has a lot to recommend it. OpenZone has a lot of hotspots, along with a partnership with the Cloud to put Wi-Fi in pubs and clubs, and a plan to add Wi-Fi to BT’s phone boxes.

One fly in the ointment might the difficulty of differentiating any such Wi-Fi service from others using the BT network, including presumably BT’s own mobile operator O2. “We’ve been playing in the mobile data space for a long time,” said Stonadge. “Our relationship with BT will not necessarily be the only one we choose to have.”

T-Mobile, meanwhile was rather sniffy about the OpenZone coverage. “T-Mobile has well over 3500 hotspots worldwide,” said Rob Price, who handles SME and corporate business propositions at T-Mobile. “Wi-Fi is bundled in with the mobile deal for businesses, for a monthly rental.” Price felt that O2’s focus on pubs was rather downmarket compared with T-Mobile’s deal with Starbucks coffee shops. “The pub is where you go after the meeting for a pie and pint,” he said.

At present, Wi-Fi offerings from mobile operators would operate in parallel with the phone services they offer, as merely a different service added to the phone bill, as the companies do not offer handsets with Wi-Fi capability: this could now change, “we will see Wi-Fi and GPRS come together,” said Stonadge.