Free wireless broadband trials to begin in London

In what it believes to be the first trial of its kind, U.K. cable company NTL Group Ltd. will launch a free trial of a wireless broadband network in London within the next two weeks.

"This is a proof of concept trial. Because of that, there is no guarantee that this will become a commercial product," said NTL spokesman Malcolm Padley.

The trial will be limited to four transmitters running the network at a frequency of 10G bits, Padley said. NTL expects data transfer rates of 512K bps (bits per second) downstream and 128K bps upstream, which is similar to the ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) rates that U.K. residents currently receive, Padley said.

Depending on the success of this first trial, which is only available to residential customers, NTL could conceivably launch similar trials across Europe, though there are currently no such plans, Padley said.

NTL Group, a subsidiary of New-York based NTL Inc., is the U.K.'s largest cable television provider, and has cable to reach more than 20 million homes across Europe, Padley said. NTL currently has 8.5 million subscribers in France, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.K., Padley said.

NTL currently has 2,300 mobile phone transmitting towers across the U.K. from which such wireless broadband services could possibly be run, Padley said.

"If this were to become a service, it would be aimed at both the business and residential consumer. It wouldn't happen any time soon, but I do want to stress that we are a company that is very much focused on broadband as a technology," Padley said.

NTL has over 77,000 business customers in the U.K., including AT&T Corp., Orange SA, Royal Bank of Scotland PLC and Tesco PLC, Padley confirmed.

One thousand residential customers in the London areas of Gunnesdbury, Wandsworth, Guy's Hospital, Shooter's Hill and Croydon will be given the equipment and hooked up to the wireless broadband network for free. In exchange, the participants are required to give regular feedback to NTL on the service, Padley said.

"They will be set up for free and can continue to use the service for free until mid-November or so. At that time they possibly have the option to then buy the equipment and pay for the service, but we haven't decided on that yet and we're not sure what the fees would be," Padley said.

The trial will conclude at the beginning of December, Padley said.

Besides residing in particular London areas, participants in the trial are required to have an unobstructed view of one of the four NTL transmitter locations, and must have a PC that has Ethernet capabilities and uses Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system (Windows 95, 98, ME, 2000 Professional), NTL said on its Web site.

"There has been a lot of speculation on how a wireless broadband service like this could be used. NTL sees two main areas. One, in the main city areas where obviously this would keep us from having to dig up the streets, we'd just have to set up the building with fiber-optic cable. Secondly, this sort of network would work really well in rural communities, where it would be a lot cheaper than having to build infrastructures that don't already exist," Padley said.

In May, NTL signed a 150 million pound (US$217 million) contract with Orange, under which NTL will work with the mobile telecommunication company to provide "next-generation" or 3G (third generation) mobile services.

In April, NTL announced that it was in talks with AOL Time Warner Inc. concerning possible joint broadband activities in Europe. "Those talks with AOL Time Warner are still ongoing. The prospect of our working together is a good one since there are a lot of synergies between us," Padley said.

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