Following almost a year of development and testing, the City of London -- often referred to as just the City or as the Square Mile -- switched on Europe's most advanced outdoor Wi-Fi network at the end of last month, which, according to the City of London Corporation that provides local government services, was an important development for economic reasons. The City is seeking to enhance its status as one of the world's leading international financial and business center.

The City is England's smallest ceremonial county by both population and area covered, but due to the fact that it has one of the densest international financial services communities in the world, it is now regarded as a leading global finance hub along side New York City. Just 1.1 square mile in area, the City sees more than 350,000 people coming in to work or visit the area every day.

"We saw that as a very important application to have because the City has always prided about communication," said Steven Bage, strategic infrastructure advisor, City of London Corporation. "We have always been on the fore front of technology. And it is not just about communication but it is also a lot about business image; we want to be seen as the most up to date on technology."

Besides, added Bage, this roll-out was deemed imperative so that the City offers the finest amenities; "amenities that help improve the operational effectiveness of the business community," he says. "So deploying an umbrella of wireless Internet access will allow a highly mobile business community to have the latest information at its fingertips anywhere, in a sector where every second counts."

The deployment was accomplished through a partnership between the City of London Corporation and The Cloud, Europe's largest Wi-Fi network operator. The Cloud has installed the network and has assumed the responsibility of running it.

"From the point of view of the nature of roll-out and its usage, this project isn't different from the any other municipal Wi-Fi project in Europe," says Niall Murphy, co-Founder & chief strategy officer of The Cloud.  "Still this network is like no other in Europe."

According to The Cloud, the main focus of this project was mobility; hence, this is the only network in the continent that allows total mobility. "The nodes are so advanced that it is ubiquitous and contiguous," says Murphy, "which means that a user can literally walk from one side of the city to the other and the network hands over the connection seamlessly to another node ensuring a consistent mobile connectivity across the city, which is unprecedented."

Usually most city-wide Wi-Fi networks in the world are meant for static applications which means that one has to stay seated -- say on a park bench or in a coffee shop -- or stationary to remain connected.

But "rolling out this network was much more complex than expected," says Murphy. The biggest problem was ensuring close to 95% coverage despite the fact that European laws restrict the power output of a Wi-Fi router to a mere 100mW compared to the 1W as practiced in USA, and as much as the 3W in Asia. Therefore this network required different technology than originally planned. Fortunately, equipment supplied by BelAir Networks offered a novel and advanced mobile broadband mesh technology. The technology consists of multidirectional dual radio nodes that use fiber backhaul. Because of the power restriction BelAir had to install 127 nodes. The number would have been a much lower if the network been in USA, says Murphy.

The other challenge was "finding some 800 points of powered street infrastructure. This number was needed because often these simply did not exist, or they were not tall enough, or were not at the right place, or were corroded, or were not owned and controlled by the City," says Murphy. "Only about half of them were viable locations for nodes."

The search for viable node locations added to the complexity and resulted in increased costs. These, however, are being covered fully by The Cloud, although Murphy refuses to spell out the amount.

Business Model: A New Mix
Another interesting feature of this roll-out is its business model; it is a "novel mix" in the sense that the network is both privately-owned but also has a public-private ownership component. The Cloud has the right to be the "exclusive" operator for at least 5 years (to be reviewed thereafter), during which it will remain as a neutral Wi-Fi network operator. This means that the operator would provide an open Wi-Fi platform that will allow multiple service providers (like BT, O2, Openzone, iPass, Truphone and Skype) to directly provide their services to their customers across the infrastructure under their own brand.

"So, a BT or an Openzone customer in the network would access -- say a BT site in the normal way that the customer is used to," says a network administrator from The Cloud. "Because we are a neutral operator, we support a huge diversity of service experiences, devices and applications. For our sites, like a coffee shop or a hotel, it means that all their customers' preferred experiences will be supported, including new applications like VoIP."

The Cloud would generate its revenues by charging wholesale fees to these service providers and would also retail services, says Murphy. In lieu of the free use of the street furniture-lamp posts and street signs, the City of London Corporation gets a revenue share out of the network.

It's not a Muni-Wi-Fi yet, but it could be...
"But revenue was never the main driver for the project for us," says Bage of the City of London Corporation, "and with just about 8500 permanent residents, neither was offering Wi-Fi for municipal services the first priority." The focus, he adds, has always been to give exemplary services to the business community and ensure the City continues to attract and retain the world's most successful international financial services companies.

Nevertheless, says Michael Snyder, chairman of the City of London's Policy Committee, the City is fast-moving with a dynamic environment, and the Corporation needs to respond to its increasing pressures. Therefore, the Corporation does not rule out the fact that eventually, the network could be used for enhancing delivery of community services, including CCTV and surveillance, traffic management and enforcement, and providing special wireless access to the (Bart's) hospital in the City.

"It is a budget-issue," said Bage "and we are working on it."

Indrajit Basu is international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.