London Wi-Fi plan hits lamppost
Westminster repeater beater
The future of wireless, we thought, was short-range repeaters on street furniture. Either, the Wi-Fi based model proposed by Westminster Council, or the revolutionary telematics model patented by Last Mile communications.
Here at the WLAN Event in Olympia, Last Mile has officially revealed its plans to install 150,000 wireless circuits, including memory, in 150,000 lampposts in the UK. To do this, it takes advantage of a near-global agreement on roadside telematics - monitoring vehicles - on which in plans to piggy-back commercial services.
The plan has raised eyebrows at Westminster Council, which last year announced a radical scheme to put Wi-Fi on all its lamp-posts, primarily to provide wireless connectivity to Council workers, but with the hope of selling services to the public - hotspots, in fact.
I asked Westminster City chief exec Peter Rogers what he thought of the Last Mile plan. "If that happens, we'll want to have words with the Government," he said darkly.
It turns out that local authorities are, currently prohibited from turning a profit from equipment they put in for their own use, and Rogers believes that new legislation will be needed to permit this.
But Last Mile believes it has authorisation from the Government's Highways Agency to make a profit on the telematics network.
The Last Mile technology uses very much faster data than Wi-Fi can achieve, and enhances this with clever proxy/cache design. Each lamppost contains not only the 63-65 GHz wireless unit, but a large memory store, which will hold around 80 per cent of the data that most people will want to download.
Data which isn't in the post will be sucked from the Internet over a variety of backhaul routes; if necessary, from lamppost to post in a high speed mesh, if no other backbone is handy.
Westminster, however, is committed to Wi-Fi.
It already has four wireless cameras, and Rogers spoke enthusiastically, today, about how they have the potential to revolutionise urban society.
"It's not just about having our workers connected, though we think the productivity benefits of having back-office services available for them will be enormous," he told NewsWireless.Net. "It's also a social thing. With wireless, for example, we can take surveillance cameras and re-site them instantly; as we were recently asked to do by police. As a result, they now have a big drugs bust. And we can tackle urgent social issues like public urination, graffiti, and so on. We even can foresee being able to fit elderly citizens with monitors to make sure they don't collapse and never get discovered."
But, said Rogers, for the City of Westminster to be able to make a commercial service, the Government has to introduce new legislation. "It's not likely that anybody will do anything before the next General Election," he added, pushing the likely deployment of commercial Wi-Fi out by a year or two. "But the Government has now put a substantial amount of funding into the next stage of proving the technology."
The possibility that the two schemes may work side by side can't be discounted, however. According to Last Mile, it will be far cheaper to deploy its telematics wireless technology: "The planned installation programme will see upwards of 150,000 lampposts fitted with very low power wireless data transmission systems, makes Last Mile's new venture a resourceful way of transforming the pavement and roads into an electronic carriageway. There will be no need to dig up the roads to lay cables and the problems of centralised and expensive network management systems are greatly reduced."
But there's nothing to stop lamppost owners - the partners of Last Mile may well include local authorities - putting other wireless technology onto the same pole, and using Last Mile as backbone, while providing standard IEEE 802.11 wireless for public consumption.
Last Mile isn't saying who it sees as likely partners, but CEO Antony Abell said that they were "in seriously negotiation" with several unnamed parties. There are hints that some of these are mobile phone providers, or telcos, and the discussions aren't limited to the UK.
"If you look at how much electronics and storage you can get into a lamppost, or a traffic light, or any other bit of ordinary street furniture such as a 'Keep Left' sign or a 'No Entry' indicator - it's impressive. We reckon that we can launch our system with a very conservative data service of up to 40 megabits per second for every user in the micro-cell around a lamppost," Abell added. "And we're confident that we can then upgrade the performance to a maximum of 400 megabits - maybe not for every user, but for several - in a 200-300 metre range. That's more data than anybody currently knows what to do with."
Key to Last Mile plans, is the idea of moving intelligence out of the network, into the edge, even to the extent of putting "Magic Book" software into client equipment. This will manage the intelligent caching of information which has to be fetched from the Internet, balancing it against what is held in the phone, or PDA or notebook.