On site: Aston Wi-Fi scheme

Mark Dye visits Birmingham to see how a wireless deployment in Aston has made a real difference to a local community in terms of education and employment

On site: Aston Wi-Fi scheme
Back in 2006, a Government survey identified Aston as an area of significant ‘digital divide’ with only 15% of local homes owning a computer. At 74% below the national average, it was hindering children’s academic potential and severely affecting the employability of adults.

Today, things are different. More than 1,200 homes and 11 schools around Aston, an inner-city area of Birmingham with a population of around 30,000 people, are connected to broadband. Locals are literally looking to the cloud – based upon an Alvarion BreezeACCESS VL solution utilising 802.11a technologies for connectivity.

This wireless cloud is generated by the schools of Aston and means that the project can supply filtered internet access to the community. Next year, nearly half of all homes there will be connected via the Aston Pride network.

For those unable to connect to the cloud, the project team worked with Vodafone to provide secure remote access to the Birmingham Grid for learning through its 3G network using an innovative methodology. This was actually the first time that the company had used the technology with a large group of 500 users.

‘From a technical point of view the initial wireless survey of the Aston area indicated that provisioning a wireless solution there would prove to be very difficult,’ explains Paul Hughes, account manager at Tempus, part of the integration team involved in the project.

Hughes explains that the general terrain and geographical location dictated that multiple channels and frequency ranges would be required to provide the connectivity and coverage that was needed. There were also a limited number of tall buildings that could be used and these were required to service the point-to-point and multi-point links to distribute the internet out to the residents.

‘In addition to this, there were a number of large dips in the contours of the area giving no line of sight for a number of homes,’ he adds.

As such Hughes says that a solution from Alvarion became the preferred choice for Aston Pride, with the company’s reputation and reliable build quality being the deciding factors along with the use of proprietary technology provided by its BreezeACCESS VL solution.

And this partnership has reaped rich rewards for Aston as the area began to transform itself, becoming BDI Industry award winners in 2007, e-Gov IT awards winners in 2008-09 and being highly commended as an IT project in 2010 in the Adults and Community Awards sector for its Computers In The Home (CiTH) project.

Aston Pride forms part of the £2bn British Government’s New Deal for Communities (NDC) regeneration programme aiming to cut the gap between 39 of the most deprived neighbourhoods and other areas. Having launched in 2001, it focuses on the five core economic areas: health, housing and the environment, employment, education, and community safety. The CiTH project is part of the Education Theme of Aston Pride and is integral to this.

As they set about addressing the digital divide that exists between Aston and the other areas of Birmingham, families agreed to pay community licences, a weekly donation for internet access and a package of support material that included adult training programmes and subscription to several evaluated pupil learning platforms in a variety of subject areas.

‘Residents contribute £10 per month for a PC desktop and internet connectivity package with IT support so long as they pay their monthly £10 by direct debit, after three years (£360) they can keep the PC,’ explains Avtar Dhillon, project manager at Aston Pride.

‘The £10 is recycled back into the schools to release teachers and assistants to deliver ICT community training to adults and the kids. After March 2011, it will go towards sustaining the project into the future.’

This is because the decision was taken that from March of next year the network will need to be completely self-financed – having been partially funded by a £53m New Deal for Communities (NDC) grant in 2002 – with Tempus and the council deciding to upgrade and expand the network so that additional applications and revenue streams would be possible.

Hughes says Tempus worked in tandem with BFi OPTiLAS on the third and final phase of the project with an objective to expand the existing network to increase the radius of wireless coverage encompassing areas of Aston that were not covered within the first two phases.

‘Spectrum analysis was carried out and from the findings it was clear that we needed to upgrade the infrastructure to accommodate an extra 1,800 users and provide them with a reliable wireless solution,’ he adds.

‘Point-to-point and multi-point links were established to provide the necessary coverage and this incorporated both public and commercial buildings.’

During the past five years, users’ expectations and requirements have changed and Hughes says they have become more demanding and reliant on the technology.

‘With that in mind the new Alvarion BreezeACCESS VL solution was the answer,’ he says. ‘Packet Shapers were implemented to ensure fair use policy throughout the estate and the entire network is remotely monitored to ensure everything runs smoothly. In the event of a failure, the problem can be isolated and a resolve initiated straight away.’

By April next year, Dhillon and Hughes expect a total of 2,500 homes to be connected.

With the new equipment in place the network will be able to provide wireless coverage with up to 3MB connection speeds to areas of Aston that were not previously covered under the old set-up.

‘The speed of the broadband connections into the schools has also been upgraded from 10MB to 100MB providing each school with a much faster internal network while maintaining a fast and consistent connection to homes within the wireless network,’ adds Hughes.

As well as making broadband accessible to the schools and homes in the area, the new network will also be used to further enhance community services, with wireless CCTV around Aston for the council and local police force to improve public safety and connection to the Intelligent Traffic Systems in the area.  

The Alvarion base stations using the 5.8GHz spectrum deployed across Aston will communicate with over 1,000 BreezeACCESS VL subscriber units in schools and homes across the region, replacing existing equipment that suffered from reliability and black spot issues.

Hughes says the hope is that by the time April comes around, all 2,500 homes will maintain their monthly subscriptions, which in turn will keep the network operational and well supported.

However, he maintains that any measurement of success will be purely based upon how the project has improved the quality of people’s lives in and around the Aston area, as the targets of the project were to improve health, education and employment.

‘Only in years to come will we see the true measure of success,’ says Hughes. ‘The Aston Pride Wireless Project has provided a stable platform from which the children and parents of Aston can now build on.’

Aston Pride: The devil is in the detail

– The internet access feed has been sourced from five local schools, with all content being filtered through the Birmingham Grid for Learning (BGFL). Each of the schools have 100MB incoming connections allowing for greater bandwidth and extra redundancy should any of the POP sites go down.

Packet Shaper – A Packet Shaper located at each POP site was required to ensure that bandwidth consumption from subscribers is managed in accordance with an agreed profile based on time of day and fair usage.

Radio Bridge Units – Alvarion Radio Bridge units are provided to enable point-to-point co
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