By Gerry Blackwell
With a little help from Britain’s nominally socialist Labor government, municipal councils in the UK are getting into the Wi-Fi hotzone business. Cityspace Ltd. has recently launched two major city center hotzones, one in Bristol last September and another, launched in June, in the London borough of Islington.
Cityspace was formed eight years ago to help councils execute the national government’s plan to offer e-government services as an efficiency measure. The company developed outdoor kiosks to provide self-service municipal information in public places. The idea was that citizens wouldn’t have to call into council offices as much and take up city workers’ valuable time. The iPlus kiosks also provided access to the public Internet.
“Access to the Internet wasn’t as ubiquitous then as it is now and the kiosk was seen as a nice way to introduce the service,” says Jake Arkell-Hardwick, Cityspace’s wireless development manager. “So we started putting kiosks in high-footfall areas, transportation terminals and so on.”
Today there are 400 iPlus kiosks across Britain. After Wi-Fi hotspots emerged as an alternative form of public Internet access, Cityspace began adding radios and antennas to turn the iPlus kiosks into hotspots too. About 100 have so far been wireless enabled. From there, it was a logical step to using the iPlus kiosks, each of which has power and network backhaul, as the foundation for creating larger hotzones.
Cityspace developed the StreetNet brand to market the municipal hotzone concept. Bristol and Islington are the first two StreetNet projects. The company did all the hardware, software and content integration. It also developed the portal page technology and online transaction processing software. Much of this was developed for iPlus and ported to the StreetNet platform.
For the StreetNet networks, Cityspace is using a mix of wireless-enabled iPlus kiosks, which have Cisco and Symbol Wi-Fi gear, and access points from mesh network equipment vendor BelAir Networks. It mounts the BelAir APs on municipally-owned lamp posts. The Bristol network includes 18 APs, the Islington network 11, a mix in both cases of BelAir and iPlus kiosks.
The BelAir unit which includes two radios and two antenna arrays – 2.4GHz Wi-Fi for local access and 5GHz for backhaul – was an easy choice, Arkell-Hardwick says. “It does exactly what it says on the tin – it’s a rugged piece of outdoor equipment, it straps to the lamppost with only the power cable coming out, it’s completely self contained. We had a nice demonstration of in Bristol. It’s extremely resilient and reliable.”
The company’s relationships with local government take various forms. In some cases, it sells the council hardware along with content and network management services. In others, where the council doesn’t have the money, Cityspace does the legwork to find alternative sources of government funding. “Government is notoriously bad at talking to itself,” Arkell-Hardwick notes. It can sometimes find funding for applications that let councils use the network to communicate more efficiently with mobile workers. Or it finds private money – from WISPs who want to use the network to provide commercial service, for example.
Cityspace’s intent is to also sell network access and content services to transportation companies, mobile phone operators and other providers willing to pay for favored positioning on StreetNet portal pages. “At this stage, we can’t talk about that,” Arkell-Hardwick says. “But we are in some negotiations.”
In some cases, Cityspace will split such revenues with the council and other partners. In other cases, the money will be used to make the network “sustainable” – i.e. pay Cityspace its maintenance and management fees. Most of the deals with city governments are long term, he says.
The Islington council’s motives for funding the so-called Technology Mile project, launched in June, are fairly typical. The mile-long stretch of Upper Street that runs through the center of Islington is a study in contrasts. At one end is the relatively affluent Angel area. At the other is the depressed Highbury Corner district. The two are “fairly polarized,” Arkell-Hardwick says.
The council saw the Technology Mile as a way of “bridging the digital divide.” It is providing free wireless access all along the street. It’s “canyon” coverage, but wireless connectivity extends well into shops, restaurants and some businesses on upper floors. Council funded PCs are available in store-front locations at the Highbury end. Residents are encouraged to use them to look for work or find out how to pay their council taxes.
Businesses along the street can use the service for high-speed Internet access, but there is talk of issuing free scratch cards to users to limit usage and “make sure businesses don’t camp on the back of this free bandwidth,” Arkell-Hardwick says. That said, network congestion may not be a problem for awhile. In Bristol, there have only been about 60,000 network accesses since September 2004.
Islington borough council is also planning to use the network to communicate with city workers and let them log in to the office network to access services. Its offices are on Upper Street. The wireless network could save some workers the time it takes to come back in to get access to computers. Islington is only at the “early stages” of implementing the internal communications applications, though, Arkell-Hardwick says.
Cityspace has developed closed circuit television (CCTV) applications that run over the wireless network, initially for hooking up traffic monitoring cameras, which are available to anyone with an Internet connection. The network could also be used to connect cameras for monitoring workers at construction sites. Voice over WLAN is another possible application.
The Islington network may be expanded as part of a government plan to regenerate the A1 corridor, the urban area along the old A1 highway into London. There is nothing definite yet, but Cityspace has had “favorable discussions,” Arkell-Hardwick says. The company is also talking to other municipal councils about building StreetNet networks. “There is nothing immediately on the horizons, but we’re in talks with local authorities,” he says. “It’s all about finding the funding and finding the applications.”