Why Fi?

Why Fi?

Manchester is apparently planning the UK’s largest Wi-Fi hotspot. The RFI for the project only actually mentions WiFi once, but it is much easier to tell the papers about a giant hotspot than to try and explain a mixed-media, multi-service, metro area IP network.

But once you get past the record-breaker hype, and look at the detail of what’s planned, it gets quite difficult to understand what this project is really for. And given that some of the funding for it will almost certainly be public money, that’s quite a problem.

The RFI starts with a very worthy (if a little woolly) intro about some of the issues Manchester faces. Nothing to argue with there. But it is the five suggested usage cases that tell the real story:

1: “Residents using the Network for universal, affordable access to applications such as E-mail, web browsing, instant messaging, entertainment and voice services”
Broadband is now available right across the UK at less than the price of BT line rental. It may not be at the 20–25Mbps envisioned by this plan but it is more than enough for email, web access, voice and entertainment.

2: “Businesses using the Network for remote office connectivity, supply chain integration, customer relationship management and inventory control”
So not only will this network compete for residential customers, it will also undercut business broadband offerings? There is a wealth of options out there for business broadband, from satellite, to p2p wireless, to DSL, to cable, to fibre. Why add one more?

3: “Institutions such as universities and those from the 3rd sector using the Network for increased interaction between their institution and students/members”
Because at the moment no students or universities are online?

4: “Public sector organisations using the Network, access by mobile staff, remote meter reading and remote camera/video surveillance”
Not only can all this be achieved over the existing broadband network, but there is in fact a wireless network already in place and being used to link CCTV cameras in Manchester. What are public sector staff doing that requires 20–25Mbps?

5: “Visitors using the network for remote access applications and local information”
‘Remote access applications’? If they need email, get a crackberry. If they need bandwidth, go to a coffee shop. It’s not difficult to get online when you need to.

Every application of this network can be delivered via existing fixed line, cellular and hotspot services. Why consume valuable resources to replicate these capabilities?

The intro notes that “Manchester has enormous inequalities — 40% of residents lacking NVQ level-2 qualifications, the greatest concentration of deprivation/low skills in the entire region. Many residents are excluded from the benefits of the city-region’s dynamic knowledge economy, being workless or “locked” into low-wage/low skill occupations, living in neighbourhoods characterised by poor health and housing, high crime levels and low levels of trust and social capital.”

Does the team behind this really think that adding more connectivity will solve these problems? I’m not saying it isn’t part of the solution, but given the plethora of options for meeting all of the use cases described above, surely the money for building out a new network could be better spent? Training, small enterprise funding, youth projects — plenty of options spring to mind.

If there is a provable need for WiFi access across the city, then there is a much more cost effective way to deliver it. Bartering.

Just about every business and many of the homes within the city will be connected to the internet. If people want to be able to access WiFi on the move, then get them to share their own access first.

A simply-configured, off-the-shelf access point can be plugged in to anyone’s broadband connection to create a secure mesh network. Any subscriber can access the network, as could indivduals or organisations who the subscribers felt should have access. This would require the co-operation of each subscriber’s ISP but if big public organisations are involved and the PR opportunity is right, then sufficient leverage could probably be brought to bear. Surely each business would be happy to spend £50–100 to give their employees access right across the city? And in areas where broadband penetration is low, use schools, police stations, doctors surgeries and other public institutions to house free access points, focusing money where it is needed most.

I’m not against the aims of this project — they are laudable. But there is a big gap between setting out to tackle deprivation and drive regeneration, and deciding a new IP network is the answer. This thinking may well have been done but the public document and the press coverage to date really don’t make the link very well.

Maybe I ought to respond to the RFI?

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This article is by Tom Cheesewright. This post forms part of the Future of Cities series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Future of Cities page.

Tom Cheesewright

https://tomcheesewright.com/futurist-speaker

Futurist speaker Tom Cheesewright is one of the UK's leading commentators on technology and tomorrow. Tom has worked with a huge range of organisations across a variety of markets, to help them to see a clear vision of tomorrow, share that vision and respond with agility. Tom draws on his experience to create original, compelling talks that are keyed to the experience of the audience but which surprise and shock with unexpected facts and examples.

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