Local authorities' Wi-Fi rollout
Written by: Philip Mason | Published:

Philip Mason examines the efforts being made by local authorities to roll out free 
Wi-Fi in town centres

Convenient access to the internet has become essential. We now expect ever-increasing data speeds at home, whether that’s to stream content from Netflix, communicate instantaneously with thousands of Twitter followers or just to do the banking.

We’re now demanding a similar level of service in our public spaces, an expectation that is rapidly going beyond the Wi-Fi hotspots (aka Wi-Fi in the library) which have been so convenient in recent years.

With that in mind, some of the most interesting work in this field is currently being carried out by local councils, many of whom are busy constructing their own Wi-Fi networks to furnish entire town centres.

The most high-profile of these is probably the City of London, which is preparing its own roll-out across the Square Mile having enlisted the services of O2, Cisco and Cornerstone Telecommunication Infrastructure. Towns that are already up and running, meanwhile, include those in Watford, Edinburgh, Newcastle and Cardiff.

Local authority digital strategy
Two of the most recent places to provide visitors and residents with free Wi-Fi access are Maidenhead and Windsor, the launch of whose networks was announced in the early summer.

The infrastructure was provided by InTechnologyWiFi, following a procurement by the local council in question – the eponymous Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead.

Speaking of the parameters of the project, InTechnologyWiFi’s marketing manager Patrick Duckworth said: “The deployment sprang out of the council’s digital strategy Resident First, which is similar in spirit to something many local authorities have in place.

“The initiative is very much about supporting economic development – meaning business and tourism – but also community engagement and digital inclusion. If you look at figures from the Office for National Statistics, there are large numbers of people not connected to the internet in their own homes.”

He continues: “Regarding the contract itself, the tender was essentially for a concession agreement through which we lease
a variety of street furniture and building assets, such as street lights and CCTV cameras. We also deploy access points on
some buildings.

“There’s also a completely anonymous data and analytics
side, which is used to monitor the flow of potential customers around the town. We require users to log on to the network in the first instance via a simple captive portal process, which in turn helps us to collect basic user data around demographics
and so on.”

Game of Thrones marathons
InTechnologyWiFi’s largest roll-out so far has been in Edinburgh, the area of which covers about one-and-a-half square miles. While not quite as extensive as that, the Windsor and Maidenhead project works on the same principle, providing blanket connectivity for the town centre, which includes the majority of both locations’ most popular shops, pubs and restaurants.

The network infrastructure consists of around 50 Wi-Fi access points deployed across each city-site, alongside 100 point-to-point wireless links and 50 network switches. The access points support connectivity at both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies, with more than 300 potential users on each. Resilience is baked into the system via the use of wireless meshing and redundant loops.

According to Duckworth, users log on once and are connected automatically on any subsequent return. There are no restrictions on time spent browsing or level of data use. (He would not be drawn on the subject of a theoretical 24 hour Game of Thrones streaming marathon).

The network is monitored automatically, all-day, every-day, using a system – of which InTechnologyWiFi refused to give details – that gives a “real-time view of any issues.”

Further value is added through the provision of an app, known as Cit-Wise, through which users are informed about upcoming local events via a scrolling feed. They can also reserve restaurant tables, taxis and so on.

“We offer the app, which we developed ourselves, as a service,” says Duckworth. “The data is provided by affiliates such as Ticketmaster, Skiddle and bookatable, as well as local tourist information organisations like Visit Windsor.

“The latter pass on editorial content which we upload. It’s something we’ve rolled out for every
local authority that we’ve worked with, as part of our USP. ”

IoT opportunities
InTechnologyWiFi views its work in Maidenhead and Windsor as a reliable revenue stream, and understandably so.

However, the company also believes its relationship with the borough will stand it in good stead should there be a wish to experiment with further connectivity going forward.

“We see the technology we’ve deployed as a platform,” says Duckworth. “Smart City and IoT technology is very much part of the global connectivity conversation now, and we’re already talking with providers who can utilise the connectivity that we’ve delivered.

“We believe the app will also integral to our offering moving forward. At the moment, it fulfils a purely lifestyle purpose, but we can see it becoming a major information hub for future smart services. As far as we’re concerned, there’s an infinite number of integrations which can be developed.”

Another provider that is heavily involved in the development of free Wi-Fi to citizens is Cambium Networks. The company’s executive for southern Europe, Javier Gomez, says that continental municipalities are already taking full advantage of the potential to develop IoT functionality on top of pre-existing networks.

For him, there are few better examples of this than the work that has gone on in the Spanish capital, specifically around a project called Madrid Rio. Referred to as a “huge recreational and cultural area” by the city’s tourism office, the eight-by-three kilometre attraction is also the site of a cutting edge IoT roll-out involving street lighting.

Describing the project, Gomez said: “The free Wi-Fi was originally deployed by us using our point-to-point system. The network originates in the middle of the park with three distribution nodes, from where the signal travels wirelessly to different multi-point antennas. It then travels to the Wi-Fi access points, of which there are 42 situated
across the site.

“As well as providing a way to get online, the system also communicates with several hundred small light controllers, each of which has a Wi-Fi client embedded in it. Each controller manages hundreds of lamps across the park.”

He continues: “To us, the project is important because it shows the type of savings that can be made via the use of this kind of wireless technology. The Wi-Fi roll-out was costed taking into account the money saved through control of the lighting, which ultimately pays for the whole infrastructure. There are many similar projects now all over Spain.”

Get on and do it
According to Gomez, projects such as Madrid Rio are only the beginning of what he believes the Spanish authorities want to achieve when it comes to the roll-out of free Wi-Fi coupled with IoT-related solutions. Potential use cases include the gathering of analytics to predict parking requirements, footfall in town centres and much more.

Of course, this form of ‘smart city’ integration is identical to that which has been discussed in the UK for the past few years. The difference is that on the continent, there seems to be a palpable political will to get on and do it, on a potentially massive scale.

For Gomez, this is exemplified in WiFi4EU – a recently-announced European Commission project through which free public Wi-Fi will be rolled out to every European city and village by 2020. He is involved in the initiative on behalf of Cambium and is enthusiastic about what it could achieve.

“The idea with WiFi4EU is to deploy quality Wi-Fi that is available to everyone,” he says. “That includes both the big cities, as well as the less populated areas of the country, which need much better connectivity to stop their businesses from moving away. We need to give them the connectivity they need to function.”

Both local and national government are relying increasingly on industry expertise to provide public-facing networks. As they give these authorities vital experience in negotiating the commercial agreements for the provision of wireless infrastructure and services and can act as a backbone for future services, they’re a stepping stone towards the much-discussed smart city concept, which promises much, but seems to be taking forever and a day to be deployed at scale.

With 5G on the horizon and a growing sense of confidence and ambition in the public sector, it might not be long before the log-jams breaks and we find ourselves in a strange new digital world.

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