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London's Soho to get blanket 802.11 cover for voice, data

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London's City of Westminster Council is to bring 802.11b wireless networking to the streets of Soho. The scheme, dubbed the Westminster 4G project, will initially provide Wi-Fi connectivity for council operatives and remote systems.

But in a direct challenge to ISPs and the UK's wired and mobile telcos, the Conservative-led Council plans to extend the network to provide data and voice services to the public.

Westminster 4G, due to be rolled out next month, will see a number of "smart boxes" installed throughout the Soho district of central London. Greek Street, Old Compton Street and Dean Street will be among the first to be given blanket Wi-Fi coverage, project leader and West End ward councillor Ian Wilder told The Register.

New York City embarked on a similar scheme last year when it rolled out Wi-Fi acces in the Bryant Park area and other zones.

The Westminster plan will allow parking meter attendants, cleaners, noise inspectors and other council workers to access council systems via 802.11-equipped handheld terminals in real-time, in the field.

The council's twin goals are improved efficiency through fast access to information and through reduced bureaucracy, and a significant reduction in its costs. According to Wilder, the Council's noise monitoring obligations currently involves the use of either specialist equipment costing up to £5000 a time, or teams of patrolling Council officials at times when noise levels are expected to be high.

Wilder said that the wireless network will allow less expensive sound monitoring equipment to be used, will require fewer monitoring staff and will enable round-the-clock monitoring. Other applications the Council is considering include the roll-out of greater CCTV monitoring - at a fraction of the cost of current systems which have seen the Council spend around £2 million installing just 30 cameras in the West End - and providing vulnerable members of the community with emergency call-out facilities.

The Soho pilot scheme will later be extended to allow the public to access the Wi-Fi network using notebooks and PDAs. It may also be expanded to provide a greater level of coverage through the district. A successful pilot could see the service implemented in other districts within Westminster Council's bailiwick, which includes some of the world's busiest and most expensive commercial real estate.

Westminster 4G's infrastructure will begin to be put in place in the next few weeks, and Wilder hopes to provide full coverage throughout Soho by mid-2004. He would not say exactly how much the initial roll-out will cost, but he indicated that the overall cost of the Westminster 4G project, including extending coverage to the whole of Westminster, will be in the order of £15 million.

However, Wilder expects the Council to recoup much of that investment. He envisages the Council becoming a service provider, delivering local residents, businesses and visitors fee-paid Internet access services, including voice over IP telephony and multimedia services. "Make no mistake, this is a commercial opportunity," he said.

And he praised Cisco's launch this week of an 802.11-based VoIP handset as an indicator of how the wireless service may soon be used. Indeed, his vision is remarkably like Cisco's own, and it's no surprise to learn that the router giant has been one of Wilder's advisors on the project. "We've been talking to them," he said.

Extending Westminster 4G beyond Soho depends on the pilot project being judged by the Council a success. Wilder would not say when that judgement is likely to be made or offer a broader timetable for the project. But he did say that while the initial roll-out will offer 802.11b, a shift to higher bandwidth 802.11g may take place in the future.

There's no doubt it's a bold scheme, and one that takes the current hotspot trend and runs with it. If 802.11-based wireless computing Intel is currently touting is to become as pervasive as cellular telephony, it will take more than a handful of base-station equipped hotels, railway stations, airports and coffee bars. It will require the networking of public spaces as well as private, and Westminster 4G, if it rolls out as planned, is a major step in the implementation of mature urban Wi-Fi coverage. ®

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