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2degrees has begun a Wi-Fi trial in central Wellington.

The company says it has invited 20,000 customers to take part in a three-month trial starting today. If the trial succeeds, it will be a blueprint for other parts of the country. 2degrees talks of a possible commercial Wi-Fi network.

Unlike Telecom NZ’s hotspot-based Wi-Fi network, which is by its nature patchy, 2degrees Wi-Fi offers blanket coverage in the area from Wellington Railway station to the end of Courtney Place. It also covers Westpac Stadium and the Zoo.

Carrier Wi-Fi — wireless internet access delivered by phone companies — is a huge deal around the world. The English city of Birmingham has 65,000 British Telecom hotspots.

Wi-Fi is popular. A UK survey found that more than half the people polled prefer Wi-Fi to 3G or 4G mobile and deliberately seek hotspots while on the move. The Economist reports Wi-Fi data traffic is growing at 78 percent a year.

Offering widespread Wi-Fi could be the much-needed circuit-breaker for 2degrees, which has managed to win a respectable slice of New Zealand mobile customers without, so far, healthy profits.

Telecom NZ has successfully used its Wi-Fi service to stake out a market position. By delivering a different, potentially more useful, form of Wi-Fi, 2degrees may be able to differentiate itself from the competition in a way that appeals to mobile workers with heavy data needs.

Meanwhile carriers and equipment makers continue to search for ways to move smoothly between Wi-Fi and 4G networks. It’s a technically daunting task, but a number of industry players hint it will soon be practical.