Norfolk enchants with free Wi-Fi

The Norfolk Open Link shows how local councils can provide broadband access without upsetting commercial interests
Written by Leader , Contributor

Few issues in today's technology space can compete with municipal Wi-Fi for sparking argument. Listen closely the next time you hear about a local authority planning to build its own wireless network, and you can hear the sound of battle lines being drawn.

That's because the commercial telecoms sector really hates the whole concept. They are the people who build these networks, and then gleefully charge us all for the privilege of making phone calls or accessing the Internet. Mayor Biggins in County Hall, they argue, should concern himself with managing the bin men.

That would be fine, if Big Telco had helped deliver a world of ubiquitous high-speed Internet access. But it hasn't, which is why there's so much enthusiasm behind public wireless networks.

America has led the way here, most notably with Philadelphia's ambitious drive to create its own municipal wireless network in the face of strident opposition. Now the UK has its own innovative scheme, in the unlikely setting of Norwich.

As we reported yesterday, the Norfolk Open Link is bringing free wireless access to the businesses and individuals around Norwich. It's also brought a new business model to the party.

The only people who get full connection speeds are council employees and businesses who agree to give feedback on the service. Everyone else is limited to 256Kbps. Not full broadband, but not be sniffed at, especially as it's free. And, we trust, not enough to encourage a company with its own wireless agenda, like BT or The Cloud, to fight the project.

Local authorities need to tread carefully when they start offering services that compete with the private sector. But their primary responsibility is to the general public, and affordable Internet access is rapidly becoming a necessity.

Councils already run public bus networks that deprive taxi drivers of fares, and public libraries that lure people from Waterstones. But no one seriously claims that such initiatives should be scrapped because they harm the commercial sector. Instead, such initiatives are a force for good, encouraging mobility and literacy which in the long term means more taxi fares and book sales.

It's the same story with municipal Wi-Fi. BT may lose a few ADSL sales in Norwich, but the telco of all companies should realise that the UK economy will benefit from more consumers shopping online and surfing the Web.

Other councils should take a serious look at Norfolk Open Link. It's got every chance of leading the way to a more connected tomorrow.

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