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The Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) is seeking a permanent tap into a network of 850 CCTV cameras that look down on greater Manchester.

The link, giving SOCA free access to any camera in the city at the flick of a switch, is being made possible by the gradual upgrade of Manchester's CCTV network to wireless internet technology.

The first such devices were installed in July up Wilmslow Road. Sources close to Manchester Police and City Council said SOCA was looking at how it might exploit the new technology to establish closer surveillance of its quarries in the city centre.

SOCA refused to comment. "Some of the stuff they are doing is a little bit sensitive," said one source close to the scheme.

Another said SOCA was interested because the old surveillance networks were limited by their costly fibre optic cable infrastructure that fed video images to control centres.

"It would be very difficult to do on fibre. It would take a lot of fibre and would require every camera in the city to have a dedicated fibre link running straight to SOCA," said another source with knowledge of the scheme.

That hadn't stopped the Metropolitan Police going ahead with plans to start running its own fibre optic links from the Scotland Yard control room to every CCTV camera in central London, he said.

The advantage CCTV operators have in London appears to be a wireless CCTV network based on infrastructure built separately to BT's. Called Manchester Metronet, all the council's new CCTV cameras are connected to it, including the six that were trained over Wilmslow Road in July.

Metronet announced this week that it had completed putting in a wireless network that had the capacity to carry live video images from Manchester's entire network of CCTV cameras.

The firm is, however, a long way off snatching them from BT, whose fixed pipes normally carry the images to the city's CCTV control room. The costs already sunk in the physical fibre optic cables laid under pavements by BT, providing a dedicated fibre optic cable for every CCTV camera, are too high for them to be replaced too soon.

Nevertheless, Manchester Metronet director James McCall said: "On average it can cost £15,000 to install a camera [on fibre] and it can take up to 150 days. On our network its takes five days and £7,750."

The Register understands it can cost Manchester council £30,000 a year to run a single camera over a fixed glass fibre pipe, but just £1,000 to run one over a wireless network.

This was attractive to the police force because it allowed them to move cameras where and when they are needed to spot crimes.

Chief Superintendent Alan Cooper, Greater Manchester Police's divisional commander for south Manchester, said in a statement about the Wilmslow cameras last month: "CCTV is a powerful weapon in preventing and detecting crime and these state-of-the-art cameras will be vital in catching criminals and bringing more offenders to justice.

"The location of each camera has been carefully considered and they will be monitored by specialist staff who will be fully briefed on problem areas and problem offenders. They will be tasked to keep an eye out for certain people," he said.

The usual professional CCTV operators would still operate the cameras. Peter Fry, director of the CCTV User Group, said this was usual practice.

Yet McCall said he was talking to Greater Manchester Police about giving them the means to tap their police operations straight into the city's entire network of CCTV cameras.

"Manchester City Council are connected to our network, so we'll link the police to our network so we can then put IP encoders in place at the council and feed them to Manchester City Police," he said.

He said he did not know anything about SOCA. But neither did South Manchester police, which installed the Wilmslow Road cameras in collaboration with the council, with funding from three local banks and a property firm.

A spokeswoman for the force was unclear about how the Wilmslow Road cameras were used by the police and did not know of any grander plan for the police to have direct operational access to city centre cameras. She thought their images might only be piped to the council CCTV control room under the direction of the police. ®

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