openspectrum.info | "I have seen Wi-Fi's future, and it's free" by Victor Keegan, The Guardian, 12 October:
"A number of places in the UK have claimed to be rolling out free wireless connections for the community to encourage internet use, but only Norfolk has got it up and running. It needed to do something dramatic because, as one of the sparsest rural communities in the country, it would run the risk of missing out, not least as a magnet for industry, if it waited until the private sector came along. It is symbolically fitting that Norfolk - birthplace of Thomas Paine, acclaimed by some as the patron saint of the internet - should be thrust into this pioneering role. At present the eight-week-old experiment, funded by a £1.1m grant from the East of England Development Agency, is centred on Norwich but it will soon be extended to 22 villages.
"Is this the future? The answer is that so far, it is going pretty well despite teething problems. My laptop got through to the web first time both in the Forum, the city's fine new community area where the central library is sited, and in a Starbucks, though the signal was patchy as it is planned primarily to be used outdoors. At one stage I had to walk across the market place to get a strong connection, probably because buildings or trees were getting in the way of a signal from one of 228 small transmitters fixed high up on lamp posts each covering 200 to 300 metres. Some 165 of these are already working and the rest will be switched on by the end of the month. The bandwidth available to the general public is only 256k but public-sector worker workers get 1MB.
"Norfolk County Council claims there are already 1,000 connections a day - far higher than expected - and it is already seeing benefits including midwives getting bedside access to information from the web, a TV installer able to order spare parts from a rooftop, and freelance photographers able to transmit photos directly to agencies rather than having to return to the office. In future it will make CCTV cameras cheaper to install and there are plans to use mobile CCTV units that reduce rowdiness.
"All this is potentially revolutionary. If Wi-Fi or high-powered derivatives such as WiMax (which can transmit over tens of miles) become widespread then no one will need an internet service provider (ISP) except for premium services (such as spam filtering) because web-based email and internet access will be free.
"There will be no need either for the mobile phone companies as presently constructed because calls will be routed through the internet as long as the recipient uses the same service.
"It was partly not to upset private-sector providers (charging £5 to £6 an hour for access) that Norfolk pitched the bandwidth low for citizens. But if Wi-Fi is to take off for telephony it will have to cover whole towns as it is pointless walking around, phone in hand, paying £5 to every local provider you come across to keep connected. The Wi-Fi enabled phones I took to Norwich did not work, but this was due to the labyrinthine procedures needed to set up new access points for these early models.
"Norfolk's business model of getting public funds to finance development with the council providing infrastructure (lamp posts etc) is a good one, but the difficulty of attracting scarce public finance is likely to mean that a US model, with the private sector providing capital and local authorities infrastructure, is likely to prevail. But if private money is reluctant to take the risks then the public sector should jump in.
"As Norwich is already starting to show, the investment may be justified simply to improve the productivity of public-sector employees. And if you add in the external benefits to business, hospitals and universities and, above all, the empowerment of ordinary people, then it could become irresistible.
"Paine, the great champion of citizens' rights, would surely have approved. "