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Forget WiMax, Stockholm's got cable to spare

Red Ken, take notes

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Column You could not think of a better place to demonstrate the wonders of WiMAX. A district, 84 kilometers across, divided into 24,000 plots of land with open, deep water between each plot. It's the Stockholm archipelago, East of Sweden, and almost every island is inhabited. Intel, Cisco and Stockholm Cable (Stokab) have turned this into the biggest showcase of WiMAX wireless you will find.

Ignore the WiMAX.

The really clever thing about Greater Stockholm isn't the deep water, it's the deep tunnels in the urban areas, carrying internet cable, not wireless. And the triumph isn't a technology triumph, it's a social management triumph. Oddly, nobody seems to want to admit it, because "social" sounds a bit too much like "socialist" for a lot of people's taste.

The problem - and its solution - should appeal to Red Ken in London. Ken Livingstone is faced with a serious problem - a future of traffic disruption. A problem Stockholm turned into an advantage a decade ago.

I was invited to see Stokab, an internet utility. When it was first proposed, it was greeted with absolute horror by the Swedish internet community because what it proposed was, quite simply, public ownership of the infrastructure cable.

It grew out of frustration by the city management over finding the streets of the city constantly closed off, with heavy earth-moving equipment making yet another hole in the road.

Exactly who first discovered that a high proportion of these holes were carrying internet cable is lost in history; but someone - clearly a genius - came up with the observation that the city would work a lot better if hole-digging was co-ordinated. If someone wanted to dig a hole, find out who else might benefit from having the traffic stopped and a trench opened up - and get them all along to put their pipes and cables and junctions and valves in at the same time.

And, this inspired administrator added: "While it's open, we'll stuff some high performance cable into it and gradually build up a high speed network!"

The question that mattered to the internet authorities, of course, was "who owns it?" and it was resolved unilaterally. A utility would be set up to run the internet cabling in exactly the same way a utility managed the sewage system. It would belong to Greater Stockholm.

Political dogma means that this experiment has been pretty thoroughly ignored by a lot of commentators. American politicians are sufficiently horrified by the thought of urban Wi-Fi "hotzone" development - all their well-trained reflexes, built up over years of anti-USSR and anti-Cuba propaganda tell them that "free enterprise is the solution...what's the problem?" and dissent from that basic axiom is difficult to express.

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