Norfolk public and firms embrace free Wi-Fi access

Norfolk County Council has seen the number of connections to its network rise from 3,000 to 30,000 less than a year into a two-year trial of a county-wide wireless network.

Norfolk County Council has seen the number of connections to its network rise from 3,000 to 30,000 less than a year into a two-year trial of a county-wide wireless network.

The £1.35m Norfolk Open Link project aims to evaluate how community mobile network access could improve economic development in the region.

The 40Gbyte network, deployed in partnership with network developer Synetrix, uses 260 Wi-Fi access points in a mesh configuration to provide access across 20 urban and 36 rural locations in Norfolk. It provides free wireless internet access for the public sector, businesses and the general public.

Under European legislation, publicly financed wireless networks cannot compete with commercial providers, so the data rate is capped at 1mbps for public sector workers and 256kbps for others. Users are also required to log in every hour.

Norfolk Open Link project manager Kurt Frary said several factors had contributed to the network's popularity.

He said ensuring that Wi-Fi antennas blended in with the existing street furniture minimised objections from locals and helped ease the network's installation. Also, the topology of the network was mapped over the local geography to identify where access points might need planning permission.

"This is where communicating the benefits of the network and its applications to businesses and public sector organisations helped secure planning permission. By consulting with these groups as stakeholders who could use the wireless access service, they were inclined to help us," said Frary.

The authority for decision making was kept with two main project leaders. Frary said this helped speed the deployment of the network, because a larger team would have been slower and less flexible.

From a technical perspective, access to the network was kept simple with a straightforward log-in interface and by omitting features such as filtering, user IDs and passwords.

A key challenge for the council, said Frary, would be sustaining the network when the trial ends in 2008, and he did not rule out the possibility of a public/private partnership. The trial was funded by the East of England Development Agency.

Ian Keene, principal analyst at Gartner Research, said, "A business model for low-cost or free internet access networks for all citizens is going to be difficult to sustain over the longer term, so expectations need to be set accordingly.

"You need to understand all the needs of applications on the network for the next three to five years to identify all the internal applications that can achieve efficiency and productivity benefits."

Norfolk Open Link >>

The East of England Development Agency >>

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