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Sheffield’s network-of-networks goes beyond free Wi-Fi

For the city of Sheffield, rolling out a free-to-use city Wi-Fi network has become about much more than just letting shoppers browse the internet. We find out more

More often than not, city centre Wi-Fi networks consist of little more than a few rugged access points (APs) stuck to lampposts, delivering connectivity that is best described as “not terrible” to shoppers and tourists.

However, for Mark Gannon, director of business change and information solutions (BCIS), resources portfolio at Sheffield City Council, Wi-Fi is becoming much more than that.

“It’s not just a purely opportunistic thing to say ‘well, everybody else is doing city Wi-Fi roll-outs so let’s stick some access points on lampposts and earn a bit of cash, or get a bit of kudos’. For us, its part of our wider connectivity strategy,” he says.

With the help of local internet service provider (ISP) Idaq Networks, wireless technology firm Ruckus Networks and advanced networking specialist Siklu, Sheffield Council is rolling out a new and highly advanced city Wi-Fi network on the city’s streets using cutting-edge millimetre-wave technology in the hope of going beyond traditional notions of what Wi-Fi is for, to help create a smart, digitised city and tackle the perennial problems of digital exclusion in one of the UK’s largest post-industrial urban areas.

Gannon, who besides running internal and external digital services for the council, including its traditional IT, is also the cofounder of a local digital city collaboration network called dotSHF, says that to accomplish the council’s digital goals, it was important that the network be future-proofed to the greatest extent possible.

“We don’t want to have lampposts with dozens of APs doing different things,” says Gannon. “Multi-purpose infrastructure makes the cityscape look less cluttered and less crowded, so having it as planned as possible, with infrastructure and hardware that is as future-proofed as possible, is one of the things we were really keen on doing.”

This led the council to Siklu’s millimetre-wave technology. Millimetre-wave, which operates in a band of spectrum lying between 30Ghz and 300Ghz, meets this goal, because while it has a very short range and its wavelengths are easily disrupted by atmospheric conditions, rain or buildings, it allows for extremely high data rates (for this reason, it will likely soon be in high demand for 5G services).

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The three technology partners, Idaq, Ruckus and Siklu, have essentially made a virtual data ring-road around Sheffield to transmit data at ultrafast speed along lines of sight between taller buildings connected to full-fibre backhaul.

Using Siklu’s radios, these signals are then delivered down to street level using shorter buildings and street furniture, where residents, visitors and machines or internet of things (IoT) sensors can access it through a Ruckus AP.

Ruckus’ mesh networking technology is also in play, bringing additional backup capabilities that mean should any of the radio units be disrupted for some reason, its APs can connect to one another to maintain connectivity.

The partners claim this deployment method is very cost-effective because it removes the need to physically trench new fibre networks. They refer to it as “fibre-through-the-air” and it has been clocked at 20Gbps, with up to 24,000 simultaneous users.

Network-of-networks

Gannon describes the installation as a “network-of-networks”, and goes on to elaborate on how it is now being used; he is already working with the University of Sheffield’s Urban Flows Observatory to give it access to the network to run an IoT air quality monitoring project.

“We’re thinking about how we can create the opportunity to use that [network] to generate the kind of intelligence data, whether that’s footfall data from people using the free Wi-Fi, or whether it’s air quality data from IoT sensors, and how we mash all of that together to get insights that help us function better as a city,” he says.

“When we went out to tender for the Wi-Fi, one condition we had was it had to be an open network that people or startups with good ideas could come and plug into it and provide interesting solutions.

“I absolutely encourage anybody who’s got something to offer and wants to come and engage with us and look at offering interesting solutions to solve – although it’s got to be focused on how it solves our city problems. Interesting technology is interesting but it doesn’t necessarily make people’s lives better.

“The dotSHF network is all about that; looking for opportunities to leverage smart thinking from startups and established companies,” says Gannon, who hopes that, in time, it will help create an ecosystem of digital companies that can showcase Sheffield and attract more inward investment to the city.

Universal Credit a catalyst

The council also hopes to use the Wi-Fi service – which is, incidentally, free to the general public – to tackle social and digital exclusion in Sheffield, by enabling disadvantaged people to access the network.

“Part of the work the council has been leading with other partners, like DWP (the Department for Work and Pensions) and Citizens’ Advice, has focused heavily on the fact that exclusion often comes from a lack of access to connectivity and devices, a lack of awareness and a lack of motivation,” says Gannon.

“A range of factors drive people to be excluded, and we are focused on addressing all of those; so there’s a Universal Credit partnership established to look at what its impact will be and how we work with people.”

The council has already had extensive meetings with DWP over the possibility of running some IT training as part of the Universal Credit referral process, as part of which claimants would get access to a device – potentially one they could keep afterwards.

“That’s not finalised yet, but we’re keen to see Universal Credit as a catalyst for people to be able to develop technology skills,” says Gannon.

“People who are online and included tend to benefit in lots of other ways,” he says. “Ultimately, the economy is digital now, and the people who are going to succeed are those who have access to the skills that will let them flourish in the digital economy.”

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