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UK's Largest Wi-Fi Community Network Emerging as a Role Model

After just three months of going live, Norfolk's wireless community network has become something of a role model for other cities and local authorities in UK interested in developing their own wireless projects.

by / December 11, 2006
The Norfolk Open Link, which according to some is the most significant outdoor Wi-Fi network in the United Kingdom to date, may be emerging as the hottest as well. Having gone live just three months back, this really wide wireless community network has already become the center of attention for cities and local authorities in United Kingdom, which are looking to Norfolk as a role model of sorts to inform any plans for their own wireless projects.

"While many cities and local authorities are talking about implementing wireless networks, as far as I know there is no national strategy covering the deployment of wireless (in digital community projects) and very few cities have actually implemented anything," said Ann Carey, the client side manager, e-Service Directorate, Norfolk County Council. "Projects like the Norfolk Open Link (along with Westminster, City of London) are thus contributing to the overall discussion and debate (of building wireless communities). We are getting a lot interest from cities and local authorities in UK who are monitoring what we are doing with keen interest, and trying to understand the lessons we are learning in developing their own wireless initiatives."

Carey added, Norfolk County Council is monitoring Norfolk Open Link- which is a pilot for two years- from a number of aspects, one of which is looking at the use for local authorities to ascertain how wireless networks could be used in delivering government services.

"We are also trying to understand how the general public who access the network are using it," said Carey, all of which is "important information that can help others counties predict the usage of their planned networks."

Initiated by the council of Norfolk County, an English county about 110 miles outside London, and funded by the East of England Development Agency (EEDA)- a regional development agency- this $2.08 million (UK Pound 1.1m) project is the largest community wireless broadband network in the UK. Having gone live from August this year, the primary objective of this experiment is to evaluate the impact and potential of mobile technology, offering free mobile Internet access for public sector employees, the business community and the general public. The network covers a large area of Norwich city centre, as well as key sites around the city including business parks, the county hospital and the University of East Anglia - in all up to 15 square kilometers.

Anyone with a wireless enabled laptop, personal digital assistant (PDA) and internet-enabled mobile phone can access the network free at a speed of 256 kilobits per second, but each session is limited to one hour. Norfolk County Council says that it has imposed these limitations on its scale and operations owing to the fact that the project is funded using public funds and has a finite budget. "It has been considered prudent to introduce some form of demand management in the form of a 60 minute session limit. This will help ensure that as many users as possible can take advantage of the free service," said Carey adding that its performance too has been intentionally set at to less than that offered by commercial services.

Indeed, why this experiment is being followed with interest is easy to understand; it is a first in the country in many aspects. Besides the fact that it is largest community wireless network in UK, it is the first wireless network to focus on both rural and urban areas, and the first wireless network to link a large umber of public sector organizations. "Not only does the sheer scale dwarf all other UK deployments, but the project aims to deliver fully mobile internet access to both the public sector and the private citizen for free, a departure from network models elsewhere," says Jim Baker, CEO, Telabria, the UK-based developer of wireless products and networks, which has supplied the radio mesh devices to the project.

The project is significant for another reason: Norfolk County Council, according to its officials wasn't as attractive to new businesses partly because it lacked investment in the latest broadband communications infrastructure. According Kurt Frary, Norfolk Open Link project manger, the EEDA- that funded the project- was therefore looking for an innovative technology, and wireless appeared as the technology of choice not only because it offered the best economics, but also because it was fit for the regions requirements. Today, says Redline Communications, which provided the wireless broadband applications to the project, its inhabitants have access to the "industry's most advanced wireless broadband technologies to connect local enterprise, educational and healthcare campus environments that once used satellite service, cellular base stations and expensive leased lines."

Redline adds that the network delivers a continuous broadband coverage through a reliable backhaul from multiple sites to the project's central 40Mb Internet link based at County Hall. More than 220 compact, wireless routers have been fitted high up on existing street furniture, such as lampposts and buildings, to create the network. Each access point has a reception radius of up to 300 meters and have been located to deliver maximum coverage in the required areas. These access points then feed signals back to backhaul sites.

"Although, the network is just a few months old," says Carey, "it appears that it has been quite a hit already." Users' access peaked in November with about 5000 users each week, but "we have just started noticing the impact of weather," says Carey. "The last 3 months were warmer, but as it is getting colder we expect usage to reduce slightly as this is a predominantly outside network service so we will be monitoring demand data very carefully."

Besides, the network is also considering applications like real time transport information, access to virtual learning environments, mobile close circuit TV (CCTV) and city-wide event information. Furthermore, Norfolk Open Link is also expanding over the next few months to include an additional 28 hotspots throughout its rural regions (South Norfolk) that would increase its coverage from the existing 15 square kilometers of urban city center area. The first 10 of these hotspots will be operational early December, as they have just completed final testing, informs the Directorate. The rural expansion is also an important element of the experiment, which will help in understanding "the differences between the rural and urban situation when it comes to Wi-Fi in terms of impact on local economy, level of usage, profile of use (when are people using the service), what people are using it for, etc."

Undoubtedly, Norfolk Open Link has all the initial signs of a successful project in the making, still there are challenges ahead. According to Carey, it has to be ensured that this pilot, which has so far obtained a grant for two years, is able to maintain its momentum for the rest of its tenure, and manages the demand and delivery of the service in a manner so that it remains within the budget but still provides good service. But the biggest challenge is what happens next. "Although we are learning everyday, we do not yet have a clear picture of a sustainable business operating model for the wireless service and therefore we will working hard to develop this over the next few months," says Carey.

But until an answer emerges, Carey and her team are hoping that this city-wide deployment can at least enhance the delivery of public services while stimulating business and private use of wireless technologies. So, even if Norfolk Open Link doesn't last beyond its sanctioned life, its success could encourage investment by private sector companies in wireless and broadband networks in the region.

Challenges Norfolk Open Link faced during its implementations.

- presence of barriers such as buildings or solid fences or large trees meant relocating some access point or include more within a sector to achieve the desired coverage,
- providing continuous Wi-Fi coverage proved to be more complex than just "joining the dots."
- some street furniture was found not to be suitable to host the access points and therefore a decision was made only to provide coverage to those areas where the street furniture could be easily used.

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Indrajit Basu is Digital Communities international correspondent. He is based in India. Photo