Can Westminster really set up a WiFi zone in a month?

Recipe for overload

Wireless experts are deeply sceptical over leaked plans from Westminster council, London, to establish a blanket voice and data zone in the West End, particularly, the Soho area. Not just the time-scale is being questioned.

The story, broken by The Register's Tony Smith, says that Westminster 4G is due to be rolled out next month.

Conservative councillor Ian Wilder, who is best known for his campaigning to "clean up" the sex business in Soho, predicted that a number of WiFi nodes, or "smart boxes" will 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.

But rival WiFi providers have expressed dismay at the prospect, predicting that access point overload will quickly follow. There are already dozens of freelance WiFi zones in the area, including Starbucks and BT OpenZone nodes, not to mention even more accidental access points provided by employees in the area, who have installed their own access points on corporate LANs.

Richard Lander of WiFi Mesh company LocustWorld said that the prospect of seeing the council successfully roll out a wide-area wireless project in a month was "far-fetched."

Other experts remembered the chaos of this year's big computer exhibition, CeBIT, in Hanover - where too many WiFi access points were installed, reducing the bandwidth from a theoretical 11 megabits per second, to about 10K - slower than a GPRS cellphone.

And even a well-organised wireless zone can be sabotaged by the thoughtless rollout of just one rogue access point which shares a channel with a neighbouring one, as was shown at the recent Microsoft mobile developer conference at Disneyland Paris.

The Register says: "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."

The Mobile Campaign viewpoint is that Westminster needs to do rather more than just roll out new access points.

The problem with the 802.11b standard is that there aren't enough channels to cover a large area with a unique channel for each zone. The same criticism applies to the coming 802.11g zone, only more so, because they tend to be more modern devices with more efficient design, and cover a wider area.

The normal attitude to wireless is to insist that licences are issued. Sensibly, the authorities have accepted that this isn't feasible with 802.11 wireless; but in the absence of an autocratic licensing scheme, it becomes the responsibility of individuals to behave ethically - as we do in driving on the left, and not the right, side of the road.

A debating and protocol-setting body should be established where people can discuss what wireless they propose to have, and how they will deal with overlap problems, or WiFi will be dead in Soho in a couple of years. Whether Westminster should run this, is an open question! - but if it plans to blanket an area, then it really ought to start discussions with other wireless LAN users in that area.

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