Lib Dem mayor candidate jumps aboard muni Wi-Fi failboat

Targeting the key tight-fisted cappuccino-drinker vote

Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrats' London mayoral hopeful, has pledged to build a city-wide free Wi-Fi network, despite the high failure rate of similar projects internationally.

The former plod said he would fund the £7.5m scheme by cancelling Transport for London's advertising budget. Each borough would have its own start page that would be larded up with ads for local businesses, which would also contribute to the cost.

Paddick added the network would be limited to 256Kbit/s to reduce its impact on commercial wireless broadband providers, while still offering universal web access. "London is a 21st century city and as Mayor I would want to see 21st century technology accessible to all," he said, presumably gazing heroically at the horizon.

The issue of interfering with commercial ventures has been just one of the major stumbling blocks that have nixed municipal Wi-Fi initiatives in the US. Even San Francisco, the natural habitat of the latte-supping mobile non-worker has failed to get a free city-wide network up, despite heavyweight backing from Google.

On the face of it the cost-benefit case for free Wi-fi in London seems pretty weak. Central London is awash with commercial providers, and with rich people. Poor neighbourhoods are generally reasonably served by cyber cafes and would probably rather their local government provided better transport, rubbish collections or street lighting than a crippled net link.

There's a failed local precedent, too. A project to provide wired broadband to a deprived Shoreditch under the banner "Digital bridge" began in 2005 with ambitious plans to roll out across London. It was quietly shut down last year amid spin it was only ever a pilot.

It's worth noting that the mostly-reasonable Paddick has form as a web fancier. While in charge of policing in Brixton, he won plaudits by frequenting Urban75, a webzine and forum where locals would air their gripes against officers. Apparently learning from that, his campaign made some fairly desperate mainstream media capital out of its use of blogs, Twitter and other cheapskate ways of getting its message heard above the Ken'n'Boris circus.

Unfortunately for him and London Wi-Fi utopians, he stands about as much chance of winning as London does of hitting its Olympic budget targets. ®

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