In what could sound like a tale from the heady days of the dot-com boom, a UK-based company is pushing ahead with plans to roll out high-speed wireless networks and location-based services using street lampposts.
Last Mile Communications believes that the humble lamppost can be used to provide broadband Internet access, and also store useful information about their location.
On Tuesday, Last Mile announced that it will work with consultancy firm QinetiQ to commercialise its plans. Trials are scheduled for later this year at an undisclosed location, and Last Mile says it is confident that its service can be rolled out on a large scale.
While Last Mile's service will turn lampposts into wireless access points that will provide access to the Internet, the company is thinking beyond just providing connectivity. It is planning to install flash memory inside the lampposts, and store information about local pubs, coffee shops and retail outlets.
According to Barry Shrier, Last Mile's sales and marketing director, people who run an application called the MagicBook on a mobile device will be able to connect to their nearest enabled lamppost and access the information stored on it.
Last Mile is also hoping to win backing from the emergency services. For example, the precise layout of buildings could be stored on a lamppost — accessible by the fire brigade if they had to attend an emergency.
According to Ian Fogg, broadband and personal technology analyst at Jupiter Research Europe, Last Mile will need the support of the public sector if it is to succeed.
"The idea of a local wireless network that emergency services, local utility companies and local government officials can use generally for day-to-day activities is a common one that is used in many places around the world," said Fogg.
Last Mile cites as a strength its lack of reliance on other telecommunications infrastructure such as local telephone exchanges, which means it could keep working in the event of widespread network failure. Furthermore, Shrier believes that companies can be persuaded to store their information on lampposts, paying Last Mile when someone accesses their data using the MagicBook.
"Say you operate a petrol station on the A1. The results of Last Mile's proposition, developed in partnership with QinetiQ, would allow you to communicate instantly, quickly, and very cheaply with motorists who need petrol and are near you. This is a profound advance in how the Internet works, and the benefits it provides," said Shrier.
But Last Mile's business plan could be threatened by other location-based services that are being developed, and by the proliferation of Wi-Fi hot spots.
"3G manufacturers are building location-based functionality into handsets and base-stations today," said Fogg. "There are also a tremendous number of Wi-Fi hot spots in place already, for which the demand is relatively weak."
According to Shrier, it would cost around £500 to upgrade one lamppost to offer Last Mile's service.