Wandering down the Holloway Road, I spot a WiMax mesh network node clipped to the top of a lamppost, with what looks like a colinear WiMax whip dangling from its bottom. The astute will immediately deduce three things from this: the Holloway Road has acquired some new infrastructure, I'm the sort of person who goes around looking at street furniture (doubtless a prelude to getting arrested for suspicious behaviour), and I really should get out more.
In my defence, the nodes in question are very recognisable — not for nothing are they known as beer kegs in the trade, although with the stubby white whip hanging off, the one on the Holloway Road looked more like an obscenely fat spermatozoan.
Nonetheless, I whipped out my portable Wi-Fi hot spot finder and did a quick scan. The thing appeared to be called Streetnet, and wasn't locked. Once in the office, Google revealed it to be part of Islington Council's Technology Mile — a council-funded, public access system done just because they can. The WiMax mesh is the backhaul connecting the Wi-Fi hot spots to the Internet, I imagine via a gateway in the town hall. Further digging shows that the Holloway Road segment was added quite recently to an older one on Upper Street. Upper Street — for people who don't know the sociogeography of North London — is best described as the centre of all that Islington is known for. Fashionistas disport with media luvvies outside tarribly nice little exotic cafes: it's all very nice, but I feel rather put out when I read that the Holloway Road extension is being trumpeted as building 21st century infrastructure for disadvantaged areas. Disadvantaged? Us? Honestly.
I shall have to spend some time in the Hercules, the Old King's Head, the Hobgoblin and the other fine pubs along the Technology Mile, rigorously profiling the throughput and latency characteristics of the network. Unfortunately, my own flat is disadvantaged enough to be set back from the Holloway Road by a hundred yards and I can't get a sniff of it: however, it's a good enough reason to get a Wi-Fi VoIP phone for when I'm out shopping or merely hanging with my bros on the street corner, dissin' the cops and hustling for a dime. As us disadvantaged types tend to do, you understand.
This is the sort of thing — the municipal network, not the dime-hustling — which is causing enormous upset in America, where the telephone companies and ISPs are fighting tooth and claw to prevent local government from installing similar systems. Nobody seems to mind here, and nobody's suggesting that it will lead to the end of civilisation as we know it. Even if StreetNet was available through my front window, I wouldn't cancel my personal broadband, and the idea that some schoolkid can pick up a 50 quid second-hand computer from the market and be online for nowt is pleasing indeed.