BT plans to launch the UK's first public-access wireless IEEE 802.11b LAN (Local Area Network) – the industry-standard used by Apple’s AirPort technology.

Aimed initially at business users, BT hopes to have the service installed in 400 coffee shops, retail and business premises by June 2003, building up to 4,000 sites in mid-2005. The company is already negotiating with Costa Coffee.

The WLAN service will be offered at public sites, including: hotels, railway stations, airports and coffee shops. It will allow users to wirelessly connect to the Internet or their corporate network using a laptop (such as an iBook or PowerBook) or other device equipped with a WLAN or AirPort card. Pricing options will include annual subscriptions and prepaid vouchers, BT said.

AirPort take-off The public access WLAN network will use IEEE 802.11b technology in the 2.4GHz radio spectrum, according to BT. The service is subject to approval by the UK Radiocommunications Agency, which has to clear commercial use of the band before the service launches.

In future, BT will upgrade the initial network to the IEEE 802.11a standard. 802.11a operates in the 5GHz spectrum and allows faster data transmission. The move to 802.11a would require another change in regulations, said the Radiocommunications Agency.

BT hopes the service will generate at least £30 million a year in three years. The company will launch a consumer WLAN product before the end of the year, BT said. Product details will come in June.

IDC analyst Paolo Pescatore said: “WLAN is ideal. Corporate users will be at airports, hotels, bars and they can access the corporate network over a broadband connection, rather than having to dial up. It is an opportunity for BT to offer something new and a possibility to acquire new customers,” he said.