Swindon ‘Wifi’ Town

It’s not often that ‘Wiltshire’ and ‘trail-blaizing’ get to appear in the same sentence (I should know I live there!) but recent news is that Swindon is to become the first town in the UK to offer free public wireless internet access to its entire population. The plan is for all 186,000 citizens to have blanket “Wi-Fi mesh” coverage by April 2010.

This is a pretty big project by Swindon Borough Council. They intend to make line rental-free and will not be charging connection fees. The service will provided by Signal and will have limited access and usage but can pay for 20Mb upgrades charged at competitive rates. The £1m project will be run by Digital City UK Ltd, in which Swindon Borough Council has a 35% share. Local businessman Rikki Hunt,from digital technology firm aQovia, created the company especially for this particular project.

If successful, there is an intention of working on similar roll-outs of the technology in other towns and cities across the UK.

When reading about the project a few thoughts came to mind….

What about security?

Security is always the big issue when it comes to wifi. The Swindon network will be using wifi protected access (WPA) which is fairly robust. The main press release claims “Anti virus software and Microsoft and Google online services will be a key feature of the network” but there are likely to be serious security implications in managing such a system.

The other issue is health, to date there has been no evidence to show that consistent exposure to wifi signals affects health, but we are still in the early days of such technologies.

Other Uses?

Signal have already indicated some other potential uses of the mesh:

The technology will also revolutionise home and business security courtesy of CCTV coverage with rapid response, allowing homes and businesses to be monitored via a control room or remotely using laptops…There are plans to deliver valuable real-time information on home electricity usage and street-wide air quality monitoring. Swindon’s Wi-Fi also has the scope to deliver free voice calls and could be used by health professionals to carry out consultations and remote medical procedures or examinations through Telemedicine.

It will be interesting to see if there are any other implications of having a totally ‘wired’ town.

How does this work for visitors to the area?

Does this scheme just apply to locals or will visitors to the area be able to participate too? This could potentially be a big pull for those interested in establishing technology businesses. Swindon already has a fairly decent IT sector with Intel and a number of other smaller businesses being situated there.

Hasn’t this been done already?

The claim sounds a little familiar, so has a town or city already offered free blanket wireless coverage?

Apparently other UK cities have had trials of the schemes (Norwich being the one most people can remember), but this is the first time an entire town area will be covered by council-backed public wifi. In 2006 the cloud geared up to bring wireless broadband to nine cities: Edinburgh, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, Oxford, Cambridge and three London boroughs – Islington, Kensington and Camden.. Whether this has happened or not is unclear but their intention was to create hotzones out across the cities, giving access to the internet for anyone using a wifi enabled computer or mobile. The project was not targeted at the entire population. More cities were to be announced during 2006 but I can’t find any record of this happening.

It seems there are many claims that have been made but not a lot actually happening on the ground.

I wrote a post a while back about finding wifi hotspots in towns and cities. For many of us life will continue as normal and we’ll still be hunting out those wireless hotspots when out and about. But for those in Swindon life will be a little more hi-tec!

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8 thoughts on “Swindon ‘Wifi’ Town

  1. One security concern I’ve seen raised, was the fear that there would be just one WPA (encryption) key for the entire network – that is, so that anyone logged on would be able to ‘sniff’ other users’ traffic with impunity. However, my understanding is that users of the Swindon mesh network will register specific devices (laptops, mobiles, etc.) on their account, and a unique WPA key will be assigned to that device. That should mean that their data is as safe as any data can be under WPA (pretty safe, AFAIK).

    Of course, if all the murmuring about WiFi health risks turns out to be true after all, Swindon may be about to microwave itself ;)

  2. Yes, I’ve just had a look at the press release and in response to “Can personal printers or music libraries be connected to the network?” it says

    “They could be connected but, for security reasons, we
    won’t allow any device connected to our network to be
    accessible from the outside world. The alternative would
    be everyone being able to use personal printers. We
    recommend users use a wireless repeater that boosts
    the signal but also gives a home/office network just like a
    normal wireless router.”

    I’m sure they’ll be hot on security as people will be expecting them to trip up.

    Bob

  3. This doesn’t add up and won’t work, technically or economically. It’s been tried many times before – most famously in San Francisco. It didn’t work then, and there is nothing different about Swindon.

    UK cities already have municipal wireless coverage through multiple competing 3G operators. Wifi isn’t the right technology – range too short, too much interference, too expensive. The BBC article mentions 1400 access points and a £1 million pot – nowhere near enough. Sadly Swindon is jumping on a bandwagon many years late when the wheels have already fallen off.

    What councils could do is provide free public wifi in small, densely used destination or transit areas. Think public parks & squares, railway stations & libraries.

  4. Thanks for comments – and the pointer to San Francisco – I’d missed that one.

    It does sound like the enthusiasm has yet to match the outputs. I guess we’ll have to keep our eyes on Swindon…

  5. Pingback: Why offering free wifi could be one way for publishers to save journalism | Online Journalism Blog

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