An huge expansion in the number of city-wide wireless networks is being predicted as local government and ISPs get switched on to the opportunities ubiquitous Wi-Fi can offer — economic and otherwise.
The report The Future of Municipal Wireless Networks from analyst Datamonitor forecasts spending on city-wide Wi-Fi in the UK and the US will swell from $900m (£439m) this year to $6.4bn in 2012 — a year-on-year growth rate of 48 percent.
In the UK, Milton Keynes and Norfolk have both launched blanket Wi-Fi networks. Norfolk fired up its community network — called "Norfolk Open Link" — back in August of last year, with the aim of improving access to information and providing opportunities for more flexible and mobile working.
According to Datamonitor, municipal Wi-Fi can help local governments deliver on efficiency targets by lowering communications costs, facilitating mobile working and enabling the emergency services to have on-the-spot access to information. But, said the analyst, different regions inevitably have different priorities in mind for a wireless blanket, whether it's expanding internet access to more disadvantaged citizens or attracting new businesses to their area. Therefore, there are a range of business models in play.
Kate McCurdy, author of the report and a government technology analyst at Datamonitor, explained that local communities are increasingly choosing to partner with commercial service providers to build Wi-Fi networks. She said in a statement: "A public-private partnership business model is attractive to both local governments and service providers because it allows each to focus on its core competencies — serving constituents and providing internet service."
Milton Keynes' network is based on this type of "mixed" public-private model — it was launched by wireless communications company Briteyellow in partnership with Invest Milton Keynes — an arm of English Partnerships, the government's development agency — and a range of local commercial sponsors, including retailer John Lewis, hotel Ramada Encore, a local firm of solicitors and even the local newspaper.
Fredi Nonyelu, managing director of Briteyellow, said: "We are having growing interest in the model and excellent pick-up in terms of usage so, as that grows, it becomes ever more attractive to commercial sponsors."
While it currently covers just the city centre area — from the station to the main shopping street and a business district known as "Hub Milton Keynes" — there are plans to expand the network over the next year to 18 months.
Nonyelu said: "It's relatively small but the infrastructure that's in place is designed to scale to cover the whole city, so we're just discussing the next phase, which is to begin to expand from that initial pilot area out to the rest of the city. The intention is to end up having blanket coverage."
He explained that one of the driving forces behind the project was "to demonstrate to business that Milton Keynes is a city that's committed to technology innovation". And having a free and fast wireless network not only helps attract inward investment to an area, he claimed, but helps facilitate mobile working and supports a "café culture" too.
"We know that having broadband out of home, accessible, on the move in a cost-efficient way can really stimulate more business, more networking and just make the place a better place to be," said Nonyelu.
Nonyelu pointed to VoIP as another benefit offered by the kind of advanced, large-scale infrastructure required for municipal Wi-Fi networks.
Nonyelu said: "Our idea was that the [Milton Keynes] network was built not just for internet access but to support VoIP and that's really beginning to pick up as the [Apple] iPhone is coming out, [and] people are becoming more aware of internet telephony on their mobiles — that's something that we're really very excited about for the future."
"As we're beginning to add new zones we're very much in a growth phase and we're seeing our numbers in the last quarter double, and, with new zones going up, we would expect to double our numbers again by the end of the year on current trend," Nonyelu added.
Across the Atlantic, cities that already have municipal Wi-Fi networks include Mountain View, Philadelphia and San Francisco, among others.