Swindon promises city-wide Wi-Fi mesh network

The network, to be developed through a public-private partnership, will aim to give all Swindon residents free internet access and potentially allow wireless CCTV and smart metering

Swindon is planning a borough-wide Wi-Fi mesh network providing free internet access to all residents.

The network was announced on Tuesday by Swindon Borough Council, which has teamed up with former Swindon Town FC chairman Rikki Hunt and the software-as-a-service (SaaS) company aQovia to set up a new company, Digital City UK.

Digital City UK, under the brand name 'Signal', will install a mesh Wi-Fi network covering the whole borough of Swindon. Mesh networks intelligently organise themselves so they can self-heal if one node fails.

According to Digital City UK's statement on Tuesday, users will be able to "seamlessly" move between access points with no interruption to service. The statement suggests the network could be used not only for free web access, but also for air-quality monitoring, free voice calls, wireless CCTV coverage, smart metering communications and telemedicine applications.

Swindon Borough Council has a 35 percent stake in the public-private partnership. Hunt told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that Digital City UK intends to set up other similar partnerships in cities and towns across the UK, with the relevant local authority holding a 35 percent stake in each case.

The first phase of the Swindon network will be turned on the Highworth neighbourhood in early December, while the rest of the project will be live by the end of April, the statement said.

"This is a truly groundbreaking partnership which will have real benefits for everyone living in Swindon," Swindon Borough Council leader Rod Bluh said in the statement. "Not only will residents in the borough be able to access the internet for free [but] the council and its partners will be able to use the technology to provide cutting edge services to the areas or individuals who need them."

"Digital City will also provide the council with a unique funding stream and it is our intention to use our expertise to help other local authorities follow our lead."

Mustafa Arif, aQovia's director, noted in the statement that the idea of city-wide free Wi-Fi networks had "died out a few years ago with scant examples of any sustainable networks", but argued that Digital City UK's business model was "built around subsidising free access with revenues from business and community services that are delivered over our wireless network".

Arif added: "This innovative partnership demonstrates a viable way forward for other towns and cities."

According to Tuesday's statement, the network will be launched with speeds of "up to 20Mbps" and tiered services will be "as fast as people want to pay for". Wireless repeaters will be supplied for installation in windows, so signals can be improved indoors.

"The free access is probably going to be based on a limited time rather than a limited speed," Hunt told ZDNet UK. He said users would be able to gain free access at the maximum available speed for two hours a day, which, he said, would be sufficient for "social inclusion" needs.

The network will be protected with the WPA encryption standard and no devices connected to the network will be "accessible from the outside world", according to the statement.

Hunt said Digital City UK's business model would depend not on the Wi-Fi network itself, but on the bundled services that the company would resell over that network. He said this approach would help the scheme succeed where entirely free municipal Wi-Fi schemes have failed.

"What we've done is we're developing a series of applications that people will subscribe to — that gives us the business model and lets us make money," Hunt said.

He added that Google and Microsoft products would be resold to customers, along with security products and "energy monitoring and intervention products" that would let Digital City UK "remotely intervene and... switch things on and off as we see fit".

Asked whether Digital City UK had any experience in rolling out Wi-Fi mesh networks, Hunt said aQovia was "bringing in partners to look at this". He said Digital City UK did not see such deployments as "technically challenging".

Hunt also said Digital City UK was looking at creating a branded SIM card that would allow users to get free voice calls while in the Wi-Fi-enabled area, then switch across to a standard mobile operator when leaving the zone. He said the company was in "early conversations" with several operators about this plan.