Brighton has a pre-WiMax network that carries both commercial and public sector traffic. With public investment, and clear benefits, it may be the catalyst to clarify attitudes to public sector wireless networking.
In the US, publicly-provided wireless services, or "metro Wi-Fi" have become very controversial, as commercial service-providers argue that public bodies are taking away their commercial opportunity. In the UK, such controversy has yet to emerge (although equipment vendors would certainly like the publicity - read our story "Please persecute us").
Metro Wi-Fi is in its infancy in the UK, but WiMax services, which can deliver broadband across an urban or rural area, may boost it. WiMax backhaul is potentially more practical, robust and scalable than using Wi-Fi for backhaul, as in the meshes proposed by cities like the metro Wi-Fi flagship, Philadelphia (read our interview with Philadelphia's CIO.
By making networks more practical, WiMax may add a new dimension to the controversy, because local WiMax networks will automatically involve the local authorities, either as customers, sponsors, or something in between.
Brighton, on the South Coast of England, may show how it will go.
Councils have the high ground and the need
Brighton and Hove District Council was the catalyst for the pre-WiMax network and provides the money to get it started. The network also services free hotspots. So, could it be open to criticism like that suffered by Philadelphia?
The Council needed fast links for the schools it runs, but found that SDSL and ADSL were not practical as the phone lines in Brighton are not all capable of supporing broadband.
The Council approached Loose Connection, a local Wi-Fi provider, that runs free hotspots in local bars. Loose Connection sold the council on the idea of a "metranet", a wireless broadband linkage, that could potentially give the council all the internal bandwidth it needs.
WiMax is ideal for linking local buildings, and local authorities are ideal customers for WiMax networks. The standards are complete, and products are arriving, although not yet certified, so networks have to be labelled "pre-WiMax".
"It's a unique opportunity for councils," says Roger Horlock, of Metranet Communications, the company set up by Loose Connection to work with Brighton and other councils. Local government is usually the biggest distributed business in any area, "... and they own the high ground," says Horlock. Town Halls and tower blocks of council flats are usually ideal to cover the local area.
A commitment from Bill Parslow, IT manager of Brighton and Hove Council was enough for Metranet Communications to build and install a pre-WiMax network, which has links reaching up to 7.5km, and carrying up to 24 Mbit/s of uncontended symmetric bandwidth. Uplinks to the Internet are provided by Brighton based Fastnet.
Brighton Council can now have the equivalent of leased lines between all its buildings and (when mobile WiMax arrives) mobile Internet access to its workforce, without the need to use the services of BT (for leased lines), or a mobile operator (for 3G or GPRS data). "We have laid the foundations to distribute data to field workers at a much lower cost than 3G," says Parslow.
Mixing in the commercial data
With an antenna on the 140m high roof of Sussex Heights, Brighton's tallest building, Metranet now has the infrastructure to offer connections to other customers, using virtual LANs (VLANs) to assure them their data is kept separate.
Metranet connections for commercial customers in Brighton cost £275 a month for a 2 Mbit/s connection. The service is symmetric, with fast uploads as well as downloads, and can be upgraded to 10 Mbit/s. Turning the service on, or upgrading it can happen very quickly, unlike the delivery of leased lines.
Brighton University is also using the Metranet, to distribute connections to Janet, the UK's main academic network, to students and staff in buildings throughout Brighton.
Metranet has tested commercial grade Internet telephony on the network, and is now offering it to businesses through a deal with Sabre Telecommunications, that involves installing an Internet-connected PBX in customer offices.
The Council is looking at this service too, as a series of Internet-connected PBXs could eliminate its internal phone bills by routing calls across the metranet.
Safe from challenge?
The Brighton metranet was launched on the basis of a contract from the council to provide connections to schools. Its other activities are commercial ones that capitalise on this, including the provision of free Wi-Fi in bars.
The Council believes free Wi-Fi will have social benefits: "Nobody in Brighton is ever further than ten minutes from a free wireless broadband hotspot," says Parslow. "This serves a real economic function."
The free Wi-Fi services pre-dated the metranet, but are likely to be extended by it. The council is not directly funding free Wi-Fi, although its funds enabled the set-up of the metranet, and will be ploughed into the infrastructure.
This is a more scalable model than the publicly-funded free hotspots in Islington and Bristol (and the mesh in Philadelphia). Already, one free public Wi-Fi scheme in Orlando Florida, has shut down, citing high costs and low usage.
It may be that the best way for councils to get access to citizens, is to focus their IT budgets on meeting their own needs, through commercial projects like the Brighton metranet, which create spin-off that reaches local businesses and residents.