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UK's 'biggest' muni Wi-Fi network goes live

Norfolk and its capital are the lucky recipients of the UK's largest free municipal wireless network, though not everyone is allowed a full-speed connection
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Norwich and its surrounding areas have become home to the UK's largest free community wireless network, Norfolk Open Link.

The pilot system, which went live on Tuesday, was funded by the East of England Development Agency. It was originally meant to stimulate economic development in the region by providing free broadband for local businesses, but has since had its scope extended to council employees and the general public.

The central network covers most of Norwich city centre — to a 4km radius around County Hall — as well as local universities, hospitals and business parks.

"If you do something for the businesses in the area, it makes sense to include the public sector and general sector as well," Kurt Frary, Open Link project manager for Norfolk County Council, told ZDNet UK on Tuesday.

Citing flexible working, easily accessible information and increased mobility as key motivations for the project, Frary pointed out that rural areas around Norwich were also being served.

"It's the first network of its type to tackle both urban and rural areas at once," Frary claimed.

Rural areas are being provided with free hotspots and "sort of mesh" networks, Frary said. Central zones have gained a full mesh network, whereby hundreds of nodes (fixed to lamp posts) simultaneously provide Wi-Fi access to passers-by and communicate with each other to pass information to and from the main Internet connection.

This connection is perched on top of the County Hall, and uses a "pre-WiMax" 5.8GHz connection for backhaul, the connectivity between the local network and the main IP networks.

"To all intents and purposes", the kit operates "in an identical fashion" to upcoming products, which will ship with certified WiMax chipsets, said Jim Baker, chief executive of equipment vendor Telabria.

Connectivity between the mesh nodes is also currently handled on 5.8GHz, although Baker suggested to ZDNet UK that Ofcom would soon relax restrictions on the 5.4GHz frequency (currently reserved for mobile Wi-Fi devices), opening up further channels for exploitation. Beyond that, the nodes transmit on the standard Wi-Fi frequency of 2.4GHz.

"We found it surprisingly easy," Frary told ZDNet UK. "The most complicated bit, in hindsight, was getting those relationships working with people you need to work with. If we'd talked to people in our own council about lamp posts earlier, it would've been easier.

"For an IT project, the biggest issues have been the practicalities of getting the boxes out there, rather than the technology, which has worked from day one."

Norfolk Open Link claims it is avoiding competition with the private sector, which has been a major obstacle to municipal Wi-Fi projects in the US. There, such projects have often run into opposition from a powerful telecommunications industry lobby.

"We're not selling a service and we're not competing with telcos, because it's an outside wireless network," Frary insisted. "You may get it in your house but it's not being sold that way — we're not giving the same class of service."

Council employees and businesses who sign up to give full feedback on their use of the pilot scheme will receive a connection speed of 1Mbps on the free service, while other businesses and individual users will be limited to 256Kbps.

Frary conceded that this meant those who successfully pick the service up in their homes would be able to get a superior service to dial-up and occasionally, he claimed, their existing broadband connections.

"It's not quite fast enough to do large downloads, but fast enough for general day-to-day stuff. I personally run a VPN on it for work use," he said.

"We've even enabled a team of midwives with three laptops and three PDAs — we'll get them to start using email and accessing hospital resources, and then we'll consider giving them access to hospital systems," Frary said. He said the local college was also keen to try out their "virtual learning environment" on the system.

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