As Westminster City Council unveiled a plan to expand its Wi-Fi enabled CCTV camera network, the local authority raised a plea to be allowed more flexibility in the way it operates - perhaps offering commercial services to the public.
After a trial in a small part of Soho, Westminster Council is expanding its Wi-Fi network to cover a quarter of the Borough, and planning to expand the services that will operate across the whole network. However, although there will be plenty of capacity on this network which will blanket the heart of London, the council will be unable to generate revenue from the network by allowing public Internet access, because of rules restricting what it can do with its lamp-posts.
The Council's bid to change the rules may be as important in the long run as the scheme's obvious practical benefits. "I think this may be a lobbying platform as much as a technology platform," said Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis - who points out he is also a Westminster resident.
Piloting in Soho Square
The Council began with four Wi-Fi connected cameras close to Soho Square, and Wi-Fi connected noise monitoring equipment, something greatly needed in an area combining many late-night pubs and housing. The four-camera network has been a great success, leading to at least one drugs bust, as well as assisting road cleaning and dealing with noise nuisance.
The pilot was very much based on CCTV: "What they have done is changed the economics of CCTV, rather than Wi-Fi," said Bubley. The Wi-Fi units use the same actual cameras as are used already within Westminster, but are about a fifth as expensive to install, and - thanks to the wireless backhaul - can be positioned more flexibly and moved at will.
"To move the position of a standard CCTV system can take months," said Andrew Snellgrove, Westminster City Council networking manager. "We have moved them within 24 hours."
Stories vary about the drugs bust, but apparently information was actually gathered from the council's noise-monitoring equipment and a camera was moved on police advice, so the flexibility of the system certainly helped.
Cisco provided networking equipment, Telindus handled integration with cameras and Intel provided Centrino portable computers.
Going large with more cameras
Following the success of the pilot, Westminster is expanding it to cover the whole area between Charing Cross Road, Regent Street, Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue, using some 50 Wi-Fi connected cameras.
The big expansion means that the backhaul cannot be entirely wireless. Fibres are being rented to certain points in the area, where Cisco switches will link to access points. The availability of fibre is one advantage of the area.
At this stage, other services may get involved, said Tim Hearn, Cisco's local government account manager. "We can set up a separate subnet for each service," he said. Police and traffic services might set up their own cameras or other devices.
The 90 analogue cameras already in the area are run by a consortium including the Council and can only be viewed in a dedicated control room based at the Trocadero in Picadilly Circus. The Council would not comment on whether this will expand at all but given the commitment to Wi-Fi and the price difference, it seems unlikely.
The new system would also be run from the Trocadero, but will be linked into the Council's data network, as with the pilot, so that workers anywhere in the council can access it.
The wireless network is intended to link employees in all divisions of the council, such as parking, and social workers. Giving these people access to the Council's back-end database will allow them to work more efficiently, filing reports while on the road, for example.
However this will also require higher security, with a VPN, as confidential details will be carried by the network. The system has three levels of security, although the higher levels are not used yet, said Snellgrove. CCTV systems don't require high security because, "you can step outside and see what they see," he said.
The new applications under consideration range from thermosensors and motion sensors to monitor the health of elderly people at home, to global positioning systems (GPS) on the council's rubbish trucks.
This could be more than just making it easier for people to do their jobs, but actually lead to the Council changing the way it works, according to some in the project: "The City of Westminster will be quite different in a year's time," said Martin Curley, director for IT innovation at Intel. "This will bring a complete business process re-engineering. Technology innovation will lead to process innovation and finally organisational innovation."
Tim Hearn put it more succinctly: "We don't want to just put lipstick on the bulldog," he said.
How will it develop?
After this success, Westminster believes other councils can do likewise.
"If this scheme works in Soho, in probably the most demanding city and where it's particularly hard to get wireless coverage throughout the whole area, it has the potential to work everywhere," said Westminster City Council chief executive Peter Rogers.
IT staff at Westminster acknowledged that the project will benefit from the ready availability of fibre, but the downside was the possibility of interference from - or to - other networks including commercial hotspots.
Future systems might use different radio technology, possibly including WiMax, although there are no definite plans: "the standards are evolving," said Snelgrove. However, Westminster is pretty certain to always use freely-available public spectrum to get the benefit of cheap mass-market equipment, and avoid having to pay licence money to Ofcom.
Can we make it a profit centre?
The big question that Westminster wants answered is can they use it to get revenue? The project is already expected to save money, and if other agencies use it as a service, they will presumably pay. Parking fines could presumably be collected more easily from photographic evidence gathered by the cameras.
But the one thing most people expect to see from a giant public roll-out of Wi-Fi is absent. There is no public Internet access. The network itself has no access to the Internet, which Snelgrove reckons has reduced its attraction to hackers. But more importantly, it falls foul of rules about what local authorities are allowed to do with their lamp-posts: they can't use them for commercial services.
Westminster Council is lobbying the Government to change this rule. And mixed commercial/public Wi-Fi on lamp-posts could have the potential to help the government meet its broadband targets, at the same time as cutting costs for local government.