With George Osborne recently having committed to some £6.25bn in cuts to start reducing the budget deficit and cut out what he sees as ‘wasteful spending’, local authorities will have been looking uneasily over their shoulders.
The move certainly rubberstamps the end of big project spending and consultancy, with £780m being cut from the department of Communities and Local Government and local authorities being asked to save around £1.165bn. With Osborne expecting a further £95m to be saved through spending in IT, local authorities will have to do more with less.
As such the use of wireless technologies becomes an even more attractive proposition for county councils, who, while adhering to cuts, must look to continue to deliver effective services within their local communities.
Fortunately, many have been working towards reducing their spend in areas like IT and communications over the past few years.
For Ged Bell, head of IT at Dundee City Council, it became obvious that a move from his old fixed-line carriers, BT and Telewest, would be necessary if he were to make the most of shrinking budgets while at the same time delivering benefits to the region by reducing costs, increasing bandwidth availability and faster broadband speeds.
‘We were looking at alternatives to the relatively high revenue costs of your traditional carrier underground and the fact that this was a sunk cost as well,’ he says. ‘Once you do it and you’ve got to pay your rent over a number of years then it’s sunk and in the ground, and if you move premises the investment is lost.’
Bell says Dundee looks carefully into new ways of reducing revenue costs.
He adds: ‘One key thing that we’d previously done was we’re a centralised, standardised infrastructure with thin client services to most of our user community.
‘Thin client means that you require less bandwidth between sites as well because you’re really only passing your screen changes and keyboard input as opposed to large amounts of data going between the sites,’ he says.
‘It’s a relatively low bandwidth requirement we have but it needs to be very reliable and low latency level because thin client doesn’t work very well if there are breaks in the connection.’
Bell says he looked around for alternative ways of doing things and noticed that one of his sister councils, Clackmannan, had dipped its toes in the water with wireless point-to-point connections.
‘It seemed to be reliable, robust and low cost because the investment is in buying the technology, as it has very low annual revenue cost with maintenance,’ he adds.
This meant trialling it tactically on a few sites, putting one school’s connection on before connecting nine secondary schools without any major issues at all.
Following this, the council thought it could significantly reduce its revenue cost for data carrier if it worked in a more strategic way. In 2005, it began the building and rollout out of a new wireless network from Alvarion with the help of Aerelink.
‘What we now have is wireless point-to-point network between sites,’ explains Bell.
So, instead of a copper cable in the ground, the council now has a wireless antenna pointing from one site to another.
Bell adds: ‘In some of our primary schools, where there is less of a requirement for bandwidth, you can actually get point to multi-point so I have an antenna in the central HQ that spans abut 105 degrees. It can point to a number of sites, which then contend for the bandwidth that’s available.’
Another benefit for both Dundee and Bell comes in terms of the technology’s longevity, with the circuits put in place being software or antenna upgradeable, so if a higher bandwidth was required then it would be possible without sinking the previous investment entirely.
Bell says one of the most significant things that he has been able to do is give enhanced functionality in terms of telephony to most of his small sites on the periphery of the city. he has done this by moving them across to IP telephony and giving them greater data access by combining one wireless connection to each site.
‘This has allowed us to get out of a high cost telephony service, giving each of these sites greater functionality regarding how they manage telephone and data traffic while giving them higher bandwidth as well – all at lower revenue cost,’ he says.
Digital radio network
Oldham Council has also looked to wireless as it attempted a Public Private Partnership scheme to deliver a digital radio network for both the authority and local businesses alike.
In December 2009, it partnered with Arqiva in a five-year deal, which was the first of its kind for a UK local authority. As a result the local community will benefit from an advanced TETRA network allowing approximately 1,000 radio users across the borough such as couriers, taxi companies and private security firms to use the spectrum.
According to Martyn Scholes, business development manager at Oldham Council, this all came about because the council’s Command and Control centre, situated in the heart of Oldham, was communicating via a number of analogue radio systems, which it also had to manage to keep vital information flowing.
This meant that the council was looking after three of its own networks as well as another three from local businesses, something that proved unreliable and inefficient.
‘Part of our plan was that we wanted a new digital radio system and a plan that would pay for itself over 5 years,’ explained Scholes.
‘We knew it was the right way to go because of the problems we had before with analogue.
‘I think that Oldham is roughly 55 square miles and I would bet our old radio system didn’t work in 30% of that,’ he says.
Scholes puts this down to all the dips and troughs of the Pennines and remembers how they would often lose the signal with the old analogue network when driving down hills.
‘With the new TETRA technology it’s perfect and these problems have completely disappeared,' he adds. “With the old system we had problem after problem with interference which wasn’t particularly safe or handy when you lost contact with a patrol at 3am in the morning.
‘Another major bonus is the end of confusion via radio conversations,’ he adds. “There is no misunderstanding on the radios now. Whereas things used to get mixed up in the past when the analogue signal had problems, we now use saved digital audio files to see exactly what was said.'
Scholes says Arqiva has given the council the mirror image of the Airwave system that they requested because of the emphasis on things like CCTV.
For many councils the public private partnership deals in areas such as wireless CCTV represent realistic ways to increase the coverage and efficiency of systems while at the same time reducing running costs.
Breckland District Council has deployed a wireless IP system with the help of Advance Monitoring Solutions via a £3.5m contract over 10 years. The idea is to reduce the CCTV services running costs to the Council via a trading platform, with the systems sphere of influence growing as businesses and residents fund their own monitored security systems – such as CCTV and intruder alarms – enhancing community safety across the district and beyond East Anglia.