Guardian reports on what Internet should be like in EVERY COUNTRY (not only cities!)
With near-blanket coverage, no Brighton resident is more than 10 minutes from a free connection. Peter Judge reports on the wireless service that carries public sector, commercial and educational traffic
Thursday June 16, 2005
Almost the whole of Brighton is now blanketed by a wireless internet service that delivers data faster than broadband. It carries public sector, commercial and educational traffic - another first for the city. Schools have multi-megabits of data, businesses get the equivalent of high-speed leased lines, students have fast data in their dorms, and everyone gets free Wi-Fi in pubs and cafes.
The Brighton metronet, as it is called, emerged after the council noticed the buzz surrounding free Wi-Fi. "Nobody in Brighton is ever further than 10 minutes from a free wireless broadband hotspot," says Bill Parslow, head of ICT & e-Government at Brighton & Hove City Council. "This free Wi-Fi culture permeates the city and serves a real economic function, allowing free and easy access to the internet for mobile workers."
Two years ago, Parslow decided to harness that enthusiasm, and spoke to the biggest free Wi-Fi provider, Loose Connection, about getting better connectivity for schools beyond the council's fibre network. "A lot of Brighton's phone lines are aluminium, not copper," says Loose Connection's Roger Horlock. "It used to be fashionable to use aluminium, but it has aged, and doesn't support broadband so well. Aluminium thwarted the council's plan to link schools with SDSL, and the only alternative was expensive leased lines."
Parslow and Loose Connection might have ended up building a council-run Wi-Fi mesh, like Mobile Bristol (Online, August 12) or Islington's Technology Mile, in Upper Street (Online, April 21). Instead, they came up with something else. "We required a radical solution," says Parslow. "But Wi-Fi was not the answer."
What Brighton got is a metronet, a metropolitan intranet - a web of fast data connections that spreads from Sussex Heights, at 140 metres Brighton's tallest building, to the town hall and the arts faculty at the University of Sussex. Parslow's commitment was the catalyst for Loose Connection to set up Metranet Communications, and rent the roof-space. "Any revenue is ploughed into the infrastructure, so the network has gone up with minimal investment."
The network is based on the WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) standards. "We used WiMax as it outperforms Wi-Fi in both range and bandwidth," says Parslow. "Wi-Fi might have a range of 50 metres in reality, but the Brighton metronet's longest link is 7.5km - and this link alone provides 24 megabits per second of uncontended symmetric bandwidth."
The metronet answered the council's needs: seven primary schools now have 2Mbps links to the internet, and council staff in the field will ultimately get data access. "We have laid the foundations to distribute data to field workers at a much lower cost than 3G," says Parslow. Future WiMax equipment (which meets the 802.16e standard) will be small and mobile enough for social workers, doctors and traffic wardens. Parslow also wants to investigate alarm systems for the elderly and city-wide translation services.
But the metronet has also unleashed a network that answers the shortcomings of existing broadband, and can outperform services from BT.
WiMax is just starting out, but it is more advanced in the US, where the potential is understood. "WiMax is a technology that does things cable and DSL can't do," says Jeff Thompson, president of TowerStream, a company that runs metronets in Boston, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. "We're a real alternative to the phone companies. We offer quality of service, which opens up reliable Voice over Internet Protocol [VoIP]."
The simplest way to picture WiMax is as a super-fast broadband without wires. If you are within range of the radio mast, you just need a suitable receiver to hook your computers (and VoIP phones) to the internet over the radio link. You then get whatever service the provider agrees to offer you.
The basic WiMax standards are complete, but until the compatibility tests are finalised and products are certified later this year, early services have to call themselves "pre-WiMax". Most are experimental, such as the one at the Science Museum's site in Wiltshire (Online, April 7), but the Brighton metronet is, says Horlock, the first truly operational service in the UK.
Commercial customers in Brighton can buy 2Mbps connections from Metranet for £275 per month. The service is symmetric, so the data rate for uploads is as fast as for downloads, and customers have the option to go to 10Mbps.
The metronet service beats BT broadband for flexibility, says Horlock: "If you win a big project, it is all go, and if you need more bandwidth fast, we can scale you up in minutes. If you move office, you can take the connection with you."
And academia is happy. The Brighton e-Learning Alliance (BeLA), funded by development money through Wired Sussex, is looking at how it might use a metronet. Staff at the university are already making use of high bandwidth in at least one experimental scheme.
The InStep project at Sussex University's School of Education, which is developing a particular model of science teacher education, will use high-bandwidth video to examine real classroom experiences. Trainees and experienced teachers will be observed remotely in normal school classrooms, through four cameras, and get live feedback through an earphone.
The net can be shared because council traffic, business traffic and academic data are kept on separate virtual networks on the metronet. There is no danger of one user breaching the security of the other, or using public bandwidth for private profit, says Horlock. Through its university connection, the metronet is even trusted to handle an uplink to Janet (Joint Academic Network), the academic community's fast backbone, take it off campus, and distribute it to students throughout Brighton.
The shared network means the council does not have to become an internet service provider (ISP), and avoids the danger of being sued by other ISPs for undercutting their business, as has happened in several US states. Commercial bandwidth on the metronet is supplied by a Brighton-based ISP, Fastnet.
Nevertheless, BT, Vodafone and the rest might be irked to find out how many users are making free phone calls via the metronet. Horlock says: "We have seen a massive increase in Skype usage over the past year in our hotspots. I think that trend is going to continue, especially given the international nature of Brighton, and its student demographic."
As well as the Skype VoIP client, commercial grade telephony was tested during the Brighton Festival, and is on offer to businesses through Sabre Telecommunications. It is a service the council could also use to eliminate its internal phone bills.
"It is a unique opportunity for councils," says Horlock. "They own the high ground - in terms of tall buildings like town halls and tower blocks - so they can get a metronet rolled out quickly."
Also, local government is usually the largest distributed business in a city, and needs to share internet connections. They also have local data traffic, such as internal phone calls, that don't need to use the public internet (hence the term "intranet"). Horlock reckons that can be enough, on its own, to justify building a metronet.
He believes others will follow Brighton's lead. "We aspire to be an elite wireless unit, building metronets for councils," he says. "We want to build wireless infrastructure and eliminate your phone bills. We want to get the internet out to areas and offices that couldn't be serviced by incumbents."
Islington's Technology Mile
Science Museum/Intel WiMax