Case study: Birmingham rolls out free public Wi-Fi

Birmingham City Council is working with Virgin Media Business to bring free Wi-Fi to public spaces and encourage mobile operators to invest in better 3G and 4G signals

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Wi-Fi is becoming an increasingly popular feature on the high streets of the UK, with retailers getting a real taste for offering free wireless internet access to their customers while they sup a coffee or browse the rails.

Increasingly, the public sector is looking to the private sector for guidance on how it too can bring the same connectivity, via tablets and smartphones, to those it serves.

Birmingham City Council is one such organisation. At the beginning of August, it announced that it planned to roll out a Wi-Fi network throughout the centre of the Midlands hub, providing access to free and speedy internet connections in its most popular public spaces.

Councillor James McKay, cabinet member for a green, safe and smart city, says the plan is a key part of making Birmingham a more attractive place for investors.

“Wi-Fi is part of a much wider agenda for connectivity across the city and the plan to position Birmingham as the place to come for innovative businesses, helping us in turn to meet our jobs challenge in the city,” he says.

Investing in Birmingham's digital future

The project was born out of other work by the council to boost mobile connectivity.

“We were working on the procurement of 3G and 4G connectivity for the city, and through that process the exciting proposal of the Wi-Fi network emerged, so really it came out of the broader plan for Birmingham’s digital future,” says McKay.

The council had teamed with Virgin Media Business and planned to use its small cell technology to increase mobile signals across the city.

The way small cells work is by connecting into a fibre network, then being attached to street furniture, such as lamp posts, to broaden the reach of their frequencies. They can then mesh with other installed small cells, boosting signals for any mobile networks that choose to link to them.

“This is a first with small cells in the UK,” adds McKay. “They have been used successfully in the US, so I am not concerned that the technology is an issue. Instead it is exciting for Birmingham, taking our infrastructure and marrying that with proven international technology not yet used in the UK, all to the benefit our residents.”

Birmingham City Council and Virgin Media Business will offer these small cells on a wholesale basis to mobile operators. It is hoped that the competitive pricing, and the fact the installation is already taken care of, will encourage more investment into the city, especially as networks look to launch 4G services.

Then, with the connectivity in place, a Wi-Fi network will also be available to residents, meaning one installation is offering two solutions.

While many will praise the Wi-Fi element, some will object to the public sector paying for infrastructure so that mobile operators can boost signals, arguing that those companies should take the financial hit themselves. However, McKay believes it was the right choice to invest.

Birmingham City Council is getting an income and creating a new market with Virgin Media Business to broaden the playing field

Councillor James McKay, Birmingham City Council

“You have a choice as a statutory organisation,” he says. “You can either step back entirely, let the market take over and wait on trend, or you can get involved and make the state become an effective partner. 

“It is not about the taxpayer subsidising something mobile network operators should be doing. We are actually getting an income and creating a new market with Virgin Media Business to broaden the playing field.”

Broadband differences consigned to the past

The choice of partner was also a surprise, as Birmingham and Virgin Media have a somewhat rocky history. 

The pair were at loggerheads last year when the internet service provider (ISP), alongside rival BT, complained to the European Union about the council for its plans to build its own superfast broadband network, claiming there would be “significant overbuild” with its own network and would be a waste of public money.

Virgin Media and BT won the case, and the £150m pledged by George Osborne to go towards 22 similar projects in major UK cities was redirected to give small businesses vouchers to cut the cost of installing broadband.  

McKay, who was a vocal opponent of Virgin’s interjections at the time, says the issue was separate and would never cloud the council's judgement in building Birmingham’s digital future.

“Where we had the disagreement was a specific issue around the Urban Broadband Fund,” he says. “We had our view, Virgin Media had its view, as did other operators. Now the issue has been dealt with and we have a shared view, but the relationship with Virgin Media and Virgin Media Business was always much bigger than that single issue.”

4G and Wi-Fi deployment schedule

With that put behind them, work is due to begin on the roll-out in September. Areas such as Victoria Square, New Street, Moor Street, High Street, St Philip’s Cathedral and the plaza in front of the new Library of Birmingham will be the first to benefit, but how it grows is yet to be decided because of the model at play.

“Where the small cells are, the roll-out for 4G and, in turn, the Wi-Fi locations is very dependent on the MNOs [mobile network operators] taking it up,” says McKay.  

“We have initially put it into high footfall areas, but again, where that model develops is dependent on MNOs' commercial considerations. We have a clear aspiration to get the Wi-Fi and 4G all across Birmingham city centre, but we depend on the operators to want that too.”

The commercial model enabling the Wi-Fi to be free and without a time limit is also yet to be defined, but this is something the council wants to leave to Virgin Media Business.

Raj Mack, head of Digital Birmingham, says: “Virgin Media Business wants to find a way to make that model commercial, but from our perspective it is about pushing forward the digital plans. It is up to Virgin how it commercialises it, but for us it is about free, open access with no time limit."

He says it is still working out some of the details – for example, how much data users will need to provide to sign up – but expects the whole city to benefit, both with Wi-Fi and mobile phone coverage.

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