A high-speed wireless network being rolled out by Westminster City Council will revolutionise the delivery of public services to citizens and could easily be copied by other local authorities across the UK, according to those closely involved with the project.
The council showed off the network at an event in London on Thursday. It was first launched last year as a pilot with Intel and Cisco, using Wi-Fi to link a small number of closed circuit television (CCTV) camera to a central network.
It is now being extended to cover a much larger area of Soho, using 50 cameras, and is likely to be soon used to keep council staff on the move connected and to improve delivery of local government services such as bill payment, waste management, and parking.
Many other local authorities are taking an interest in the Soho network, and Westminster City Council chief executive Peter Rogers believes that it could be replicated by government bodies across the UK.
"If this scheme works in the West End, in probably the most demanding city and where it's particularly hard to get wireless coverage throughout the whole area, it has the potential to work everywhere," said Rogers.
Martin Curley, director for IT innovation at Intel, agreed that the Westminster experiment was ready for wider deployment.
"This scheme has resulted in dramatically reduced IT operating costs, and is likely to soon roll out in many other cities in the UK, and even around the world," said Curley.
According to Rogers, the Wi-Fi CCTV cameras cost just a fifth of the price of a conventional one, which also take much longer to install or move.
But CCTV is just the start of the project. Westminster council wants to use the extended network to support e-learning centres in local flats, and to allow residents to pay bills without having to leave their homes.
Tim Hearn, Cisco's local government account manager, said that it's important that the wireless network is used to create new and better local services, rather than just transferring existing services from a wired environment to a wireless one.
"We don't want to just put lipstick on the bulldog," Hearn said.
The Metropolitan police are said to be very interested in the network, as it could allow officers to receive images from crime scenes and picture of suspects while on the beat. One drug bust has also been carried out based on evidence collected using the Wi-Fi CCTV cameras.
Andrew Snellgrove, Westminster City Council networking manager, explained that a range of security measures are in place on the network, including VPN links and encryption. He said that the network has not yet been hacked, and pointed out that while CCTV is the only application running there is little point in someone compromising the network.
"If they want to see what's on our CCTV cameras, they can always just go outside and look," Snellgrove said. The fact that the Westminster Wi-Fi network doesn't connect to the wider Internet should also deter hackers from taking an interest, as they wouldn't be able to surf for free if they got connected.
The Westminster network uses 802.11b and 802.11g. It is likely to incorporate faster protocols such as WiMax in the future, but Snellgrove said that there are no firm plans in this area yet.