Brussels: Unwired City

By Gerry Blackwell

June 22, 2004

The 'capital of Europe' is busting out all over with Wi-Fi projects. Some are grassroots, but most are officially sanctioned by the government.

Brussels, Belgium, a lively city of just under a million that sometimes refers to itself as the "capital of Europe" for the European Union institutions it hosts, is suddenly busting out all over with Wi-Fi projects.

Three are being spearheaded by the Centre d'Informatiques pour la Region bruxelloise (CIRB), an agency of the Brussels Capital Region government that provides IT and ISP services to the 19 local administrations that make up the region.

The fourth project, about which we know less at this point, is a Wi-Fi free-net that, according to CIRB director Sorin Ciocea, already has dozens, possibly scores of points of presence (POPs) around the city.

In the most visible municipal project CIRB is deploying very modernistic-looking touchscreen kiosks across the city. The kiosks provide citizens with government and some commercial information and also double as Wi-Fi hotspots.

"The idea behind this operation is to try and provide to citizens less expensive, if not free, services in order to familiarize them with the new technologies," explains Ciocea. He points out that Belgians pay 30 to 40 Euros ($35 to $45) a month for DSL access -- "which is very expensive."

Five of the kiosks are in place now. The other 15 were to be installed before the end of June.

A second Wi-Fi-related project, like the kiosk project, rides on the coat tails of a larger informatics initiative. A public-private partnership -- which is apparently typical of the way things are done here -- is equipping computer labs with PCs in every elementary and secondary school in the region.

"As part of that project, we're now testing a wireless solution for schools to provide the possibility for professors to move from one classroom to another with a laptop and present Internet information to students," Ciocea says.

All of the Wi-Fi, school and kiosk projects use the backhaul services of IRISnet, a national backbone network built by a private joint venture, in part using existing fiber owned by the regional government and with some government funding.

The government gets to control IRISnet prices for public projects, and in 2007, ten years after the project was initiated, the network reverts to public ownership.

The third of the three municipal projects is an initiative to put 100 additional free public Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the region. This one doesn't have political approval yet, and may be delayed or advanced by mid-June European and local elections.

"I think that we're in a transition period," Ciocea says of the political climate. "Some [municipal administrators] know about wireless and have shown an interest. Others cannot understand it and at the moment are not interested in this kind of project."

"But I think that by the end of this year or early next, we will have this project approved by a large majority."

Since the Brussels region has a total area of about 600 square kilometers and the hotspot technology being used in the kiosk project only has a range of about 300 meters, the new hotspot project will inevitably still only provide islands of coverage -- but that is all it's intended to do.

At this point, CIRB is in the early planning stages. It doesn't know how much each hotspot will cost, except that "it's much less expensive than a kiosk," Ciocea says. This is something of an understatement. Just to buy the first 20 kiosks is costing about $1.22 million. Getting them up and running, and paying for telecom connections and maintenance will coast $370,000 a year. On the other hand, the steel and glass kiosks look as if they'll be there for a good long while.

Citizens and visitors can use the kiosks to access government information such as garbage pick-up times, how to get from here to there by public transit, contacts for police and other emergency and non-emergency regional government services. The kiosks have printers so users can carry hard copy away with them. Any public content provider can submit information to be posted on the kiosk portal site at no charge.

"But they can't just provide any kind of content," Ciocea says. "It must be really citizen driven and it must be easy to use -- one or two clicks to find a real answer to a real question."

Some content from commercial providers such as Le Soir, the Belgian newspaper, is also included. Hotels and other travel and tourism-related businesses can place listings as well. It can't be "just publicity," though, Ciocea says -- and commercial content providers have to pay.

"We'll try to have more and more private content providers and with the money received, we'll try to buy other kiosks," he says.

Users of the kiosk's touchscreen terminals don't have access to the public Internet. CIRB doesn't want Internet-savvy users spending hours at them. The kiosks can only be used by one person at a time and are intended to appeal to even computer illiterate citizens.

Wi-Fi users within range of a kiosk, on the other hand, have unlimited access to the Net, for free. They must identify themselves to get access and they enter through a public portal similar to the one at the kiosks. It includes Internet access as one among several services offered.

Making the service free is "normal," Ciocea says. He means it in the French sense of "only to be expected." The kiosks are being paid for out of public money and use the publicly supported IRISnet for backhaul -- so, of course, it's free.

Providing the service is also all part of the government's strategy of getting Belgians using the Internet despite what it sees as the high cost of commercial broadband service.

CIRB is placing the kiosks in heavily-trafficked areas near cafes and restaurants, so laptop and PDA users can sit down to use the service. This being a European city, there will be apartments and small businesses near many of them, and the "lucky people" who live and work there will also get free access, Ciocea notes.

When we ask him if the various government backed Wi-Fi projects would hamper commercial initiatives, Ciocea says, "This is a question we asked ourselves at the beginning and we do not have the answer." However, he admits to recently getting wind of a Wi-Fi hotspot initiative from Skynet, an ISP owned by former PTT Belgacom, so maybe the question is moot.

He expects there will be more kiosks. Besides additional sites funded by proceeds from commercial content providers, local administrations can buy kiosks to place where they want and CIRB will install them. One commune has already committed to placing two kiosks -- this is in addition to the regional government's 20. By the end of next year, Ciocea is hoping there will be as many as 100 kiosks in place. All will be Wi-Fi hotspots, as well.



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