Wi-fi has been touted as the future of mobile coverage for nearly ten years, yet we still need hot spot finders. Could that soon change? Digital City UK has been running a pilot near Swindon for free wi-fi coverage. Brian Runciman spoke to CEO Rikki Hunt about progress, problems and prognostications.

Digital City UK chose Highworth, a small town outside of Swindon, to run a pilot that could have huge implications for UK wi-fi coverage. Along the way they have been using some innovative technical solutions and learned valuable lessons on working in the public sector.

‘Initially we were going to go big bang with Swindon coverage,’ says Rikki Hunt, CEO of Digital City UK, ‘but the pilot has taught us we need to take an incremental approach to roll-out. We have learnt a lot about radio-mapping, for example, and discovered that working with the local council to site routers on lamp-posts has challenges.

‘For example, not all lampposts have power on all day. The regulations also differ, even if only slightly, from council to council. Each lamp-post needs to be individually approved for use by the street furniture manager, or equivalent, and in Swindon there are tens of thousands of posts. Mostly this can be done with a drive-around, to learn whether some may be up for replacement, whether they are close enough together and so on. In some cases we’ve even had to put in our own lamp-posts.’

The pilot has gone more slowly than expected, but Highworth now has 90 per cent coverage, with 2,500 homes using the service. This represents a 28 per cent penetration of the market, where Digital City were only expecting around 8 per cent.

‘We have been stunned by the feedback we’ve got - from PR and for the service itself. We are fortunate to be around at a time when the technology to allow this to be done efficiently has broken through. Mixed technology is the approach. The signal comes from fibre, and then we put into an area as many points of presence as required for a good signal.’

Interesting problems, new products

At the moment Digital City have been offering only the free service, although when coverage is complete in Highworth there will be a £5.99 per month service for 24/7 access and a £9.99 service that includes use of one roaming device and a free router. An interesting problem that has come up is that some forms of double glazing have a film on the glass that bounces wireless signals.

‘We never knew that before, but we have developed a patch for any windows affected that solves the problem,’ says Hunt. ‘The router also has a beam-forming technology that boosts the signal to avoid interference and a way of managing noise on the signal. We use a supplier called Etherlive to provide this - who distribute an innovative product by Ruckus. Another thing the system does is spread the load if one point is getting particular heavy use.

‘We’re aiming to get 10 per cent penetration into the SME market next, and they will have the option of four or more roving devices - no phone lines needed. That will cost £19.99 per month. And we are also developing an innovative offering for enterprise that will bundle applications for such things as accounts and CRM functions. A back office cloud app, basically.

‘Another interesting application is a CCTV solution. When a network is fully rolled out the police will be able to monitor any camera in real time. Most current camera stock in Swindon, for example, is able to link to a wireless network - it’s just a case of making sure the network is there. After that a natural product would be to send home owners, say, two cameras, and they can then monitor their homes from their laptops. Or they could be offered a monitoring service whilst they are away on holiday.

‘The key to all these things is a robust infrastructure. Anyone can put a router on a lamp-post, of course, but it’s these added applications and the operation of the whole network that will enable its monetisastion.’

Future plans

Digital City is currently undertaking a feasibility study with Bathgate, near Edinburgh. Swindon itself is being worked on after the successful Highworth deployment and the company is also having ongoing meetings with Boris Johnson and the Greater London Authority about the 2012 plans for London wi-fi.