Sky is set to launch its public Wi-Fi hotspot service from The Cloud called - yes - WiFi Hotspots from The Cloud
The company announced its intentions to provide the free and unlimited access to paying broadband customers nationwide at more than 10,000 hotspots, at a launch event at the Barbican Centre in London -the venue itself one of such Wi-Fi zones.
To help guide customers to the access points, Sky has also designed a dedicated Sky Cloud WiFi app, on both iOS and Android, which uses your location to bring up maps and directions of your nearest hotspots. There are no apps for other mobile platforms at present but access it possible through a web browser.
On initial set up, the app takes customers' username and password credentials, meaning that you'll never have to enter them again. Step into a WiFi Hotspots from The Cloud hotspot with your Wi-Fi enabled device and you'll connected automatically. While non-Sky customers will still be able to use these access points by registering with the Cloud, they will have to enter their details each time.
Only Sky customers on the Broadband Unlimited, Sky Connect and the soon to be launched Fibre Unlimited tariffs will get free access to WiFi Hotspots from The Cloud. Anyone else on Sky's books will have to upgrade if they wish to use them for free.
However, should you choose to, you get a total of six devices enabled for access per account on the service, which you can switch in and out of, using the app, whenever you like when WiFi Hotspots from The Cloud arrives some time in mid-April 2012. There are no data caps and no time limits.
"Wi-Fi has moved from something that's nice to have to something critical," said Lyssa McGowan, Sky's director of Communication Products.
"Sixty per cent of the world's data traffic is expected to be video by 2014 and 3G is just not going to be able to meet those demands. As the CEO of Little Chef said to us, Wi-Fi in restaurants is as imporatnt as salt and peper at the table."
Director of communications at The Cloud, Simon Jackson, also took the time to announce a new partner to add to the list of restuarants, retail outlets and venues housing the Wi-Fi zones. The state-of-the-art, 67-acre public development called Kings Cross Central will be The Cloud-enabled with access available in the outside areas. As such, it will become the UK's largest, outdoor, free Wi-Fi public space.
King's Cross Central will join the recently announced London Overground stations, Westfield shopping centres, Virgin Active gyms and outlets such as Pizza Express, Cafe Nero, Ted Baker, Phones 4 U, Wagamama and Greggs. There will also be new main line stations added from the Network Rail portfolio including Leeds, Liverpool Lime Street, Manchester Piccadilly, Glasgow Central, London Cannon Street, London Euston and London Bridge.
"We want to be where all of our customers live their lives," said Jackson. "Where they get on the train at the station, where they have their cofee, where they go to the gym and where they go out in the evening."
"Every company we talk to is talking about having a multi-platform strategy and Wi-Fi is the enabler for that."
Sky acquired The Cloud in February 2011 and has, in 12 months, more than doubled the number of hotspots on the network from 4,000 to 10,000, whereas it took The Cloud, on its own, from 2003 to get to that initial figure.
Sky's competitor, BT, may advertise 3 million Wi-Fi access points in reply but Jackson was keen to point out that the majority of these are not available for all to use. You have to be a BT customer and many of those are not BT Openzones and are instead part of the BT Fon service which relies on using customers' residential routers for access which many, in practice, have not found a viable way of getting online while out and about.
All the same, the "free" element of WiFi Hotspots from The Cloud is very much in the eye of the beholder, as well as in the choice of the partner. It will still cost you the price of a coffee to sit in Cafe Nero and use the service, even if the access itself is free. And, if you were thinking of hovering outside the shop windows of a The Cloud-powered store, then think again. The hotspots are fitted with technology that can very precisely control the range of the Wi-Fi signal and ensure access goes only as far as the confines of the shop floor.
For non-Sky customers still wishing to use The Cloud, again, that's entirely possible and, some of the time, may also be free, but there's a very good chance that the partner retailer or restaurant will limit the time of your access or perhaps charge instead.
Doubtless, WiFi Hotspots from The Cloud is a great bonus for existing and paying Sky customers but how useful and effective that public access becomes remains to be seen.