Living in the wireless city

Politicians and the tech industry say Wi-Fi can change society, but in reality several significant obstacles remain

Progressive local authorities in Europe and the US are plunging into a new technology trend — rolling out free Wi-Fi across cities.

The theory is that making high-speed wireless access freely available makes city employees more efficient, and gives citizens easy access to government services. One of the most common justifications for such schemes is that they will help bridge the digital divide, fight social exclusivity and bolster the knowledge economy.

This noble aim is frequently espoused by local and national politicians, such as Tony Blair who once claimed that "We must make sure the whole of society can experience the benefits of the internet". Many vendors of the equipment that makes wireless cities possible agree — for example, Intel's Gordon Graylish, who recently told us that "It's very difficult to argue with social inclusion". Such sentiments sound praiseworthy, but is it really going to happen?

"It's not really happening right now because, left to their own devices, obviously operators are going to invest in infrastructure in only the most attractive parts of a city," says Niall Murphy, chief technology officer for network operator The Cloud. "It's complicated by the question of who has the money to invest in deploying these networks. If a city is in a position where they don't have the capital to undertake these investments themselves, an operator coming along and offering to undertake the investment for them is an attractive proposition."

This view is echoed by Dave Hughes, chief technology officer for BT Retail and one of the key players in the roll-out of BT and Motorola's Wireless Cities initiative. The project will see parts of 12 UK cities go wireless by the end of March 2007. "For our purposes we're primarily interested in the commercial centres, where you get the most footfall," says Hughes candidly.

At the end of November, Hughes was one of the speakers at the Wireless Cities event — frequented by industry and politicians — held in Cannes. He told delegates at the conference that BT would happily continue to roll out access so long as it continues to get paid. "We're not a charity," he pointed out. "Sustainable quality in terms of access services is not free."

Hughes says it does not matter where the money comes from; portal partners, the advertising industry and subsidies are all welcome.

This approach means that politicians who want to close the digital divide can't just give the commercial operators a free hand, otherwise the areas in greatest need of free Wi-Fi will miss out.

"If a city takes a passive view then that's what is going to happen," explains Murphy. "You see internet cafes built in the richer part of the city — that's why cities have got to take an active role."

If local authorities are serious about using municipal Wi-Fi networks to bridge the economic divide, says Murphy, they already have the right card up their sleeves. "They control the property rights," he says. "We do see some cities doing that, where they're saying: 'Right, the rules to play in our environment are as follows: we'll allow you to operate services in the rich areas, but we also want you therefore to be providing infrastructure in the poorer areas. In exchange for that, we are going to give you some exclusivity or some ability to have differentiation out of our infrastructure'."

"I don't think that runs in conflict with the notion of a neutral network at all, in fact I think it drives it because one has to figure out how one is going to drive maximum return out of that investment," Murphy adds.

On the face of it, one aspect of the digital divide — easy access to public services, around 90 percent of which are now available online — could be solved by municipal Wi-Fi. In, for example, the City of Westminster's roll-out, a tiered service will be offered to citizens. Although...

... general internet surfing in Westminster will mean paying the operator (BT), accessing public services will be free — a model that is expected to appear in most places.

But the impact of digital divide extends further than this. On a basic economic level, many items are cheaper online than on the high street, so a further advantage is gained by those with web access. The internet also makes it possible to set up a small business with negligible overheads or advertise services online and, if you are physically disabled or relatively house-bound, connectivity can be an economic lifeline. The nation's economy would, of course, benefit from the financial gain of those who are currently excluded.

It must be said that the government has done a lot to make basic computer training part of schooling, and most children know their way around a computer. However, even if subsidies meant citizens other than schoolchildren were able to access the Internet for free through municipal Wi-Fi, two key questions remain. The first is: what would they use to go online? "If you're socially disadvantaged then you probably don't have a laptop or a PDA, and it's a bit naïve to think so," says Stephen Hearnden, director of telecommunications for Intellect UK — the country's tech industry trade association — but speaking here in a personal capacity. He blames government for not thinking "end-to-end", by pushing for deployment of free services and then "not thinking about how people have to buy facilities to use them".

Terminals in libraries are of limited use, suggests Hearnden, as "there aren't that many of them and they're quite a long way from where many people go". His view is that internet cafes, which effectively offer a pay-as-you-go solution, are "probably better for less well-off people" at present.

BT's Dave Hughes agrees that terminals are necessary in order to include someone from "the other side of the digital divide". However, he adds a further condition: "You also need a willingness. Wi-Fi access that's free at the point of use is just part of the overall package".

And this is the crucial part. Free internet, even with subsidised terminals, is useless if they remain unused. Simon Hills, program manager for SustainIT (an initiative of the UK Centre for Economic and Environmental Development), tells the cautionary tale of what happened when BT gave certain community groups free PCs and a year's free broadband through an awards scheme — but with no training.

"In a fair few cases, people weren't using it. They didn't know what to do with it," says Hills. "It was a typical case of technology for technology's sake".

Hills praises the contrasting approach taken by Islington Borough Council, which became something of a pioneer in the UK by rolling out the "Technology Mile" (over two miles, in fact) along both well-off Upper Street and down-at-heel Holloway Road last year.

What was important in this case, says Hills, was that the council got community "buy-in" from the very start. It consulted the public, identified who needed and wanted the technology and gave it to them. The access issue was at least partially solved by a bus, containing six or seven terminals, which tours the neighbourhood offering a chance for less mobile citizens to get online. This approach, according to Hills, also "engages people around their interests and the things that are most important to them".

"Subsidies aren't going to be enough, unless you give people the skills and reason to engage," says Hill. "If access taken out to these people then it makes a real difference — if it's targeted."

"I'm not sure how well this ubiquitous access thing is targeted."