Telecoms, data and radio communications specialist Pennine Telecom has launched what is believed to be the UK’s first fully free community Wi-Fi network.
The company has funded the network which operates in Bury, Greater Manchester and provides unlimited free access to the internet. Optimised to serve mobile devices, the network covers a one square mile area in the east of the town and can simultaneously support up to 400 users. Unlike other “free” public Wi-Fi hotspots it requires no log-in and is not time-limited so users need not purchase additional access to stay online.
The new community Wi-Fi service has been enabled by developing an existing home broadband network which Pennine designed and implemented in 2010. This was funded by and created for Broad Oak Sports College and Bury Council to serve many of the secondary school’s student households. That £140,000 project- dubbed Net@BOSC - was devised to combat the “digital divide” by ensuring low income families in one of the borough’s most deprived areas gained vital broadband access. It was the first wireless home broadband network to be launched by an English state school.
‘Net@BOSC has been a tremendous success and demonstrated that it is possible to introduce an effective and low cost wireless network even when high density housing and tree cover present technological challenges,’ commented Ian Taylor, wireless specialist at Pennine Telecom.
‘Broad Oak, which has always seen itself as a key community hub, has from the outset been keen for local residents to be able to benefit. We took that on board and agreed to add an additional and entirely free public service, with no vouchers, log-ins or limits, by exploiting the existing network architecture. As a Bury-based company ourselves we are acutely aware of the issues of deprivation and inequality, and their impact locally, and were therefore pleased to donate our time and expertise,’ said Taylor.
The introduction of the public network has been welcomed by Broad Oak’s headteacher, Neil O’Connor: ‘Since we first conceived the idea for Net@BOSC we were keen that ultimately not just our students but the wider local community could benefit from free internet access. This is a great solution as it satisfies the growing demand for mobile internet access whilst not placing any administrative burden on the school. Our core competency is in the provision of high quality education, not Internet service provision.’
Cllr Nick Parnell, cabinet member for children and families at Bury Council, said: ‘This is a great example of how partnership between a school, the private sector and the local authority can provide invaluable services to the local community. This is a pioneering scheme that I'm sure will be much appreciated and used by people in East Bury.’
The new network passes over a 40Mbps commercial broadband line to provide a fast connection and is calibrated to easily support mobile internet access. Whilst access is unlimited Pennine has implemented filters so that the network may not be used for bandwidth hungry peer-to-peer or streaming. Inappropriate content is also blocked.
It has been created by adding a new Service Set Identifier (SSID) to the Net@BOSC wireless local area network (WLAN) which operates via 50 lamppost mounted and powered Motorola point-to-multipoint wireless backhaul links and mesh access points.
The launch follows the news that 16 London councils are finalising plans to launch free Wi-Fi networks. The local authorities are reported to be in discussions with major ISPs and mobile operators with the service providers set to use lampposts and street furniture much in the same way as Pennine.
However their model differs in that in return for providing free consumer Wi-Fi access, service providers will secure revenue through advertising. ‘That’s a valid model, especially in the current economic climate,’ says Taylor. “It allows local authorities to squeeze additional revenues from existing assets whilst introducing a new and free service for residents.’
See also: Camden Council works with Arqiva to launch public Wi-Fi service in London