City-wide Wi-Fi needs only one thing to help it take off in the UK - persecution.
A mile-long hotzone in Upper Street was announced yesterday, with free access to residents funded by Islington Council. It is one of the biggest public hotzones in the UK, but falls far short of US moves, including unwiring the whole of Philadelphia, and is unlikely to provoke BT into action.
Islington's Technology Mile in Upper Street was put together by integrator Cityspace, using BelAir wireless mesh networking kit, along the lines of a similar hotzone, StreetNet, in Bristol last year. "Councils are not providing networks that will compete with commercial operators," said Cityspace chief executive Marc Meyohas, at the Wireless LAN Event in London this week. "A few hotzones will not bring BT to its knees."
That's arguably a shame, because flak from telcos is arguably what has virtually guaranteed the success of city-funded Wi-Fi. When Philadelphia announced plans to blanket the whole city in Wi-Fi, offered cheaply to its citizens, Verizon got an Act passed outlawing such schemes. Similar bills are pending in eighteen states - and the ensuing furore, fuelled by blogs like Muniwireless have made sure everyone is aware of the issue. The lawsuits are likely to be counterproductive, raising the profile of municipal Wi-Fi.
"It's the perfect storm. We get calls from municipal IT managers, saying 'our mayor has decided he wants to jump on the bandwagon'," said Greg Richardson, president of Wi-Fi consulting firm Civitium, which wrote the business plan for Wireless Philadelphia. "It wasn't a bandwagon till Verizon made it one."
"I can't imagine things happening the same way here," said Richardson. "The US is more decentralised. Cities here don't have enough of a budget." Diana Neff, Philadelphia's chief information officer, stayed out of the politics, but stressed the social benefit: "Our goal is to cover eighty neighbourhoods," she said. "We are working with recycling and refurbishment plans, supplying sub-$200 desktops and sub-£400 laptops." (read a longer interview with Neff).
By comparison, Islington has put a handful of PCs in local businesses, such as cafes and dentists. At this size, it's no threat to BT, and Chris Clark, BT's chief executive for wireless broadband, is quoted as saying so: "Free access doesn't touch us," he said to VNUnet. "It's not a market we're going after. We're after the business market and in a lot of cases business laptops are locked out of such hotspots for good security reasons."
But all this could change. Ron Sege, CEO of outdoor mesh company Tropos, wants to raise the temperature. He told Techworld he was off to meet with Birmingham Council to discuss putting a Wi-Fi mesh across the whole city. "Islington isn't going to cause BT any concern, but the whole of Birmingham would," he winked.