Wi-fi for all

August 2010

Rikki HuntWi-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.

BCS will look at the technical details of the project at a later date.            


Comments (6)

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  • 1
    Sceptic wrote on 10th Aug 2010

    Lots of ordinary Swindon residents appear deeply sceptical about the viability of this offering - opinions that they're perfectly entitled to hold, given that around £450k of their tax money (so far) has been used to help fund this experiment.

    After months and months of hyperbole, the vast majority of Swindon's residents still have yet to see even the merest glimmering of a WiFi service - and yet Mr Hunt appears to be off to the next potential investor before he's begun delivering his promises on his own home turf.

    Readers wanting more information might do well to visit the non commercial Talkswindon chat forum which has plenty more background on the tendering process and questions about the roll out and delivery.

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  • 2
    Geoff Reid wrote on 11th Aug 2010

    I suggest the author(s) of this article check their facts more carefully before republishing Digital City press releases.

    The following statement is directly at odds with what Mr Hunt recently told 59 Swindon Borough Councillors:

    "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."

    Odd then, that Mr Hunt recently admitted to councillors that:

    "We have over 600 unique users each month in Highworth"

    600 users into 2,500 homes simply does not work Mr Hunt.....but accurate maths has never been a hallmark of this project.

    In my opinion this article and the figures it contains look like the latest example in a growing list of 'media presentations' which are intended to make this failing project look more attractive to potential investors and lenders than it really is.

    i notice there is no mention in this article that Digital City has applied to the Technology and Strategy Board and Regional Development Agency for funding. Now why is that?

    I understand that, after 9 months of commercial operation, Digital City (UK) Ltd still has less than 25 paying customers in the entire borough of Swindon.

    Shouldn't these points make any sensible bod question whether this is, was, or will ever be a sound investment?

    Nothing about the Swindon Wifi project is 'as it seems'. There are many good resons why it is referred to locally as the Wifi'asco

    I'd love to know how many genuine industry experts have read this article and laughed wryly when they realise that Mr Hunt is more Eddie the Eagle than Alan Sugar.

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  • 3
    Pete Andrews wrote on 18th Aug 2010

    Haven't we seen this all before though?


    And it didn't have a killer app then either!

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  • 4
    Dave wrote on 19th Aug 2010

    It appears from the comments that this 'experiment' (and a very very costly one at that - after all just how much can wifi cost???) is not a success. The second interesting question - if wifi is 'free' how is it paid for? Some places (mainly abroad) offer free wifi in order to attract customers into particular locations - pubs, hotels etc. but in the UK wifi 'hot spots' are so prohibitively expensive as to make them nonsensical to use.

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  • 5
    DaMellon wrote on 19th Aug 2010

    nice comment from a few months back "the WiFi scheme is not about providing broadband "

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  • 6
    Johnny Was wrote on 1st Oct 2010

    I think it's really sad that the majority of poster here [and elsewhere] seem extremely negative. I have no association with GetSignal but think that's an innovative offer, particularly where the backhaul is via fibre rather than copper [better bandwidth = more consistent performance]

    I would have liked to see the service rolled out far faster, however, like a lot of innovative ideas it appears to have hit a number of unplanned problems, streetlights without 24/7 power [centrally switched rather than locally switched lighting], the need to individually survey streetlights etc.

    As far as I can tell, the buisness model is not rocket science. Casual use [2 hours per day] is free, more than that is paid for - at a rate that very attractive and the option of "apps" by subscription. The "free" service is great for marketing and PR and is subsidised by the commercial offer.

    As to Dave's comment that Wi-Fi hotspots in the UK are prohibitively expensive, you obviously are a little behind the curve on this on. McDonalds offers free Wi-fi in pretty much all of its restaurants, Weatherspoons offer free wifi across all of their pubs, many hotels now do the same, as do coffee shops and publicly accessible locations such as museums

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