O2 today announced plans to offer free Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the UK to all mobile web users.

O2 Wifi will be what the telco is calling 'a scaled Wi-Fi platform'. According to the vendor O2 Wifi will be 'genuinely free' to customers. Access to hotspots will be through a simple sign-up process and will be free to O2 and non-O2 mobile customers. O2 customers will be automatically authenticated to use the service. O2 says the service will be 'fast and secure' and more akin to a commercial broadband connection than home connectivity. No further details are offered, however.

Set to launch immediately with the rebranding of 450 existing Cloud hotspots, the service promises in two years to more than double the number of premium hotspots currently offered by BT Openzone and The Cloud. O2 says it will reach out to 'shops, restaurants, retail outlets and outdoor and indoor locations' (so, er, pretty much anywhere) across the UK to extend the network.

The move comes hard on the heels of reports that News Corp's BSkyB is about to purchase wireless hotspot provider The Cloud, and not long after high-profile moves by other telcos to restrict the amount of data mobile web users can download for free. Wi-Fi hotspots are set to play a much greater part in mobile web use.

O2's New Business Development Director Tim Sefton said: "Building networks is a core capability. We have pioneered the explosion of mobile data over the last three years and know better than anyone where people are accessing data. O2 Wifi hotspots will bring high quality public Wi-fi access to the majority of mobile users.

"Only 20% of people who have access to free public Wi-Fi on O2 tariffs actively use it despite the majority of devices being Wi-Fi enabled. We know that Wi-Fi as a technology has great potential and can be a very fast service, however customers are discouraged by barriers which include complexity in activation, uncertainty of where Wi-Fi is free and the variable quality of the current experience.

"O2 is integrating new layers of technology into the existing network to enable a seamless and sustained customer experience. We are technology-agnostic and driven entirely by our customers' needs. We believe that services should be delivered in the best possible way, across multiple networks, supported by different technologies."