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Desperately seeking WLAN apps for London

Westminster offers prizes to get citizens using city Wi-Fi

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Wireless Event City wireless LAN pioneer Westminster City Council has kicked off a competition to find new applications to run on its planned city-wide Wi-Fi network.

Along with sponsors BT and Vertex, it is offering prizes of £1,000 in each of three categories: Wireless Living to improve the daily life of individuals, Wireless Neighbourhood to benefit groups and communities, and Wireless Business. A fourth £1,000 is on offer for the best idea from the three partners' own staff.

Contestants are invited to design applications in up to 1,000 words and submit them on the competition website.

So does this mean that Westminster is having trouble finding enough uses for its city-wide WLAN? Certainly not, said councillor and city cabinet member Daniel Astaire.

"Westminster has the ambition to be the greatest city to work, live, and play in anywhere in the world," he enthused. "So we need to embrace new technology and find ways to be more efficient.

"We're already moving our own services to wireless, but there's a lot more we've not thought of. I hope we'll have some ideas that could even be rolled out across the city in 2008."

It does seem though that the council has realised that its WLAN plan was short of personal value to taxpayers. So far, its main users are council field staff - parking attendants, environmental health officers and the like - plus those members of the public willing to pay for access to its BT OpenZone overlay. Free services are limited to exciting stuff such as access to the council's own website.

Jon Lane, who runs BT's Wireless Cities programme, acknowledged that if city WLANs are seen to benefit only council staff and business travellers, they could well hit problems - even before the scaremongers spot the first Wi-Fi aerial going up outside a Westminster primary school.

"The key challenge is to move from the current range of fairly simple services to a new range of services and devices," he said. "The interesting thing for me was how quickly people came up with ideas such as 'Couldn't we do this...' or 'Couldn't we do that...'."

The sample suggestions offered by Westminster and its partners are predictable enough though, ranging from finding parking spaces online to information for tourists and visitors.

The Westminster network was piloted in Soho and some of the city's housing estates. Covent Garden and Whitehall are next, and Westminster's whole eight square miles should be covered by the end of 2008, according to Astaire.

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