Swindon goes Wireless!

We get a technology update and find out why the entire borough of Swindon could soon be going wireless...
29 November 2009

Interview with 

Chris Vallance


Helen -   And now it's time to find out the latest from the world of technology.  And this week Meera has been finding out how the Internet is transforming the town of Swindon.

Meera -   Yes, it's time to find out what's been happening in the world of technology.  So once again, I've come down to the BBC Television Centre in London to meet our resident techie Chris Vallance.  Hello, Chris.

Chris -   Hi, Meera.

Meera -   Now Chris, what is this I hear about Swindon, the entire town of Swindon, becoming WiFi?

SwindonChris -   Well, there have been a lot of efforts to create municipal WiFi and Swindon certainly isn't the first place to do that.  What I think is interesting about Swindon is they've got a very ambitious project, a partnership with the local council and private enterprise.  The aim is that the whole of Swindon Borough Council, 186 thousand citizens will have access to free WiFi by April of next year.

Now, they're going to be offering a range of services, so the free service is going to be very limited, very basic and then there will be options to pay for services that are more like the regular kind of broadband service you might have at the moment at home.

Meera -   So it's not as straightforward as the case if you just live in Swindon you are going to have great free WiFi then?

Chris -   No.  I think you're not going to have the same kind of experience you'd have with a paid package.  The people behind this scheme, the council and Digital City UK limited their aim is that everybody in Swindon, whether in the borough of Swindon, where they live in a small village out lying in the town or in the town itself, will be able to get online.

What's interesting is the way they're doing this as well, I mean, they're starting in one village and then they're rolling it out.  So it's not going to start like most schemes in the city centre where most users are.  It's also going to be WiFi-based which again is interesting.  It's not going to be a lot of digging up the roads.  It's mostly going to be around from WiFi boxes that operate in a mesh that connect with each other.  So again that's a different approach from approaches that have been tried before.

To get a little more information about this, I paid a visit to Swindon, and I spoke with Ricky Hunt who is the entrepreneur behind the scheme.

Ricky -   This is a great opportunity to talk to people sending them information about its simple level when schools are going to be closed because of bad weather, updates on swine flu or traffic or whatever.  So yes, we have a landing portal which will provide local information.

Chris -   There is a problem acknowledged in the Digital Britain report, with access in outlying villages and rural communities.  The main reason those places don't have a WiFi at the moment, this is not economically viable.  Why does it make sense for you to supply WiFi to these places?

Ricky -   If you look at them individually, it doesn't.  But when you look at the whole, if we can put it together where we've got enough commercial services and fill in the some of the outline areas later, so it's quicker and a lot cheaper than cable and that's part of the key as well.

A photograph of a metro Wi-Fi antenna in Minneapolis, MN. Antennas like these are placed across a metro area to create a wireless mesh network.Chris -   In fact we're standing under one of the key bits of infrastructure of your project a lamp post, what was their role in the whole scheme?

Ricky -   Our transmitters will sit on lampposts.  It gives us access to power and of course, lamp posts are where people are.  So we'll use the lamp post as the  power and it will create a mesh over the whole of the town.

Chris -   One of the big costs with installing broadband is the simple infrastructure, digging up streets, laying cables, how does your system get around that problem?

Ricky -   The boxes all connect to each other and at some point they'll be linked to an exchange, maybe in two or three units, a Wi-Max backbone and then they will just all talk to each other.

Chris -   An important part of your business plan is once you've built the wireless network here in Swindon, the extra services you can sell.  Tell me about some of your plans there.

Ricky -   Well, we have a range of products.  We have energy monitoring, for example, and we all know, these products have been around for a while but nobody has been able to utilize them properly because they haven't got connectivity.  We'll be able to monitor electricity at the beginning, but actually remotely intervene so if I left the lights on at home I can actually see it on my phone and switch it off.

And that's quite unique.  We will by, certainly in February, we'll have gas and water as well, being able to be monitored and intervened with.  We'll have Medicare systems, where we can monitor people at home so, you know, when we talk about the hospitals trying to keep people in their home rather than in hospital, we have products that will facilitate that.  CCTV, you know, we can monitor CCTV.  You can have a look at it on your computer when you're away, or we can have it live monitored for you by local company.

Chris -   The idea of people having individual numbers or a growth of sort of domestic CCTV, and some people would be listening to that and thinking great.  Others will be listening to it and starting to think about George Orwell, obviously, data and data securities are very important.

Ricky -   It's very secure.  It uses the latest technology.  It's very, very secure, secure as anything that exists, probably a little bit more because technology's moved on at the point becoming to the market.  So, we're very comfortable with the security, that's not an issue, and there always people who don't want to access this sort of technology.  And that's fine, they don't have to.

Chris -   So that was Ricky Hunt, talking about Swindon's plans.

Meera -   Now, of all of the towns in the UK, why Swindon?  I mean nothing against Swindon, but why Swindon above everything else?

Chris -   Ricky Hunt has very strong connections with the town.  He's really been the driving force behind it.  So it's purely the fact that he's primarily based there.  I think what's interesting is that for them, it's more than about just having the infrastructure in places.  It's about the extra services they can offer to people as well.  So it's very much a commercial model.  It's also a service that Ricky told me he feels could work in more places that just Swindon.  And he's quite keen, if Swindon is a success, to take the idea out to other towns and cities across the UK.  So, we'll see if that happens.


Add a comment