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Westminster gets all meshed up

City of Westminster's municipal Wi-Fi scheme is finally ready to move out of its pilot phase
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

The long-awaited rollout of wireless connectivity across Westminster is to begin by the end of this year.

Starting with a square mile across Soho and the West End, the entire City of Westminster will be connected by the end of 2008, a spokesperson for Westminster Council said on Monday. The City of Westminster includes Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square and the Houses of Parliament, and covers a total of 28 square kilometres.

"It will allow council workers to carry out their daily functions far more efficiently and at lower cost," the Council spokesperson told ZDNet UK, giving the example of a wirelessly connected health officer inputting data into a handheld device rather than returning to City Hall.

While council workers will get access for free, the public will also be able to pay to get connectivity in the area. Residents will also be able to access the system without paying to surf if, for example, they need to pay parking tickets.

"Residents will be able to securely access the local network and pay for services and access information online, and tourists and visitors could also access that same site for information about tourist destinations," the spokesperson said.

Another likely application for the system will be wirelessly connected CCTV cameras, which were trialled during the lengthy pilot of the project. The council first announced the scheme in early 2004, and extended it across Soho and into some council estates a year ago. Work will now start on finally rolling out the network, with the square mile connected by mid-2007.

Asked why the project has taken so long to emerge from its pilot stage, the spokesperson said it was "a huge project which is why it's taken a number of years to get to this point".

Although the scheme falls within BT's Wireless Cities initiative, and BT will be physically building it and initially selling access under its Openzone banner, the actual operator is Vertex, the council's strategic partner. According to Vertex's transition director, Robert Blackwell, the system will be a mesh network based on a core fibre backbone, and Cisco's mobile access routers — mostly fixed on to lampposts and other street furniture. WiMax capability can also be added in future, Vertex said.

Mesh networks are groupings of wireless nodes that have the ability to intelligently organise themselves and reroute links if one node fails.

"We've created a balance between wireless and fixed so that we build in very strong resilience and strong security parameters, because the intention is to drive transformation of how the councils delivers its accountability to citizens and businesses," Blackwell said on Monday. "We wanted to make sure we didn't have disruption in the airwaves that could take out the whole network."

Blackwell also explained that the system will help the council to monitor demonstrations and parades and "rapidly deploy remote resources" such as increased broadband capacity for police vans or news crews, if needed.

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