Government Technology

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


December 11, 2006 By

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


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