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Summary:

London is officially jumping on the mesh Wi-Fi bandwagon today with operator The Cloud switching on the 127-node network built with BelAir Networks gear. With some of the large-scale Wi-Fi networks like Taipei’s slow to bring in a significant amount of users, it’s becoming clear that […]

London is officially jumping on the mesh Wi-Fi bandwagon today with operator The Cloud switching on the 127-node network built with BelAir Networks gear. With some of the large-scale Wi-Fi networks like Taipei’s slow to bring in a significant amount of users, it’s becoming clear that networks need to be built for a variety of specific uses like public safety, or smartly targeted at a population that will actually utilize Wi-Fi services. It’s not as easy as ‘build it and they will come.’

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Unless it’s a population with few other options to broadband, pure public access in large metro areas is starting to be seen as one of the less reliable links in the chain of muni Wi-Fi return. Will Londoners be interested in the service? A BBC reporter who already logged into the London network while travelling on one of the cities rickshaw cycles, wonders:

But is there really much demand for open-air surfing? After all, staring at a laptop screen in the sunshine is not a great experience, especially in an area where so many cafes have Wi-Fi access. . . [also] it’s hard to see why well-paid city workers would bother with the extra effort needed to make a Wi-Fi call.

If the companies want public access in large cities to play a large role, they need to push devices that help users connect and make calls more easily. For the London network the companies are offering free service for the first month over Nokia’s devices, and EarthLink has a similar promo with Nokia’s newest Internet tablet and free service until the end of 2007 in the U.S. But these types of devices have been slow to enter the mainstream.

London’s network could bring in a significant amount of subscribers, but my guess is it will take quite a bit of time to draw substantial interest from the public. Enterprises, looking to save money, might be more willing to try it out.

  1. hi Katie, i could not agree more on the lack of need. I actually live just down the road from the wifi mesh talked about. It cant be pitched at workers because they all have an office.. with a computer… and internet. So if you happen to be visiting the area your issue in london is finding somewhere to sit! If you sit in a busy cafe using wifi with a laptop they will throw you out and make room for paying customers. Internet cafes (with somewhere to sit) abound at just 1 pound per hour access, and some provide free wifi and just charge if you need to print. Perhaps mobile devices from Nokia will be the key…

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  2. I’d love to see pricing on something like this per month.

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  3. this will be quite fun, expecially for users of GSM / WiFi mobile phones like the E and N Series Nokias. Using truphone or other mobile VoIP providers you will be able to sit anywhere and make very cheap mobile phone calls. This is in particular interesting for visitors. London has 25 million tourist a year. Each of them makes an ARPU for an MNO during the visit of £10, that’s a 250,000 pound (500,000 dollar) market to tackle. Clearly you can call for much less from a WiFi enabled mobile phone. Unless Orange or Vodafone cripple your phone, like they have done on the N95 to keep cool companies like truphone out of the GAME of offering a real choice to consumers.

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  4. The issue initially will be price, we’ve blogged about this here

    However, depending on penetration into closed sopaces like train stations etc, the opportunity to compete with mobile location based services and Mobile TV may be interesting.

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  5. I reckon this scheme will fail for a number of reasons.

    Firstly the location is actually pretty poor considering Westminster is a ‘downtown’ area – mainly offices with existing WiFi connections. Why would you choose to unplug when you have a faster, more reliable connection at hand?

    Secondly the price will probably be very high seeing as The Cloud already operate hot spots and their existing access services are very expensive.

    I also don’t believe the quality of the service will be particularly good – for a start it’s questionable exactly how many concurrent skype calls or video downloads can occur on a mesh network like this, where there are few gateway to the internet and as such a lot of bandwidth is consumed transporting the signal from base station to base station in addition to bast-station to client.

    Given the dense nature of the area it’s also likely there will be a lot of existing wifi network traffic to deal with too.

    I think this scheme would have more chance of being success if access was free – but then I guess if that was to happen it would ultimately be deemed as a failure by those who erected it. Clearly the markers for success for this project have been set around revenue rather than municipal benefit.

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  6. The real issue for this type of network is not to stagnate by providing “just” Internet access. It is the availability of services and applications that can be used over this network that will create the larger user numbers. Think of online application such as the ones Google has recently started offering (spreadsheets, word-processing etc) onlin backup for mobile devices, but also very much th wide range of location based services and geo-location tools.

    E.

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  7. If a WiFi network is to be used for public services, then it has to be robust. You cannot ask a Police officer or a firefighter to move around his PDA looking for coverage, in these scenarios, the needs are summarized in four words: It Has To Work. Even a dustman toting a WiFi gadget used to collect statistics on how many Starbucks cups are in each bin will be demanding as to the quality of the service.

    In Barcelona, traffic wardens have been using PDAs to write their tickets for about two years now, and what do they use? The trusty, resilient GPRS network with full coverage anywhere in the city.

    With mobile network operators rolling out higher and higher speeds on their networks (over 7Mbps was seen at the last 3GSM), does it make sense to blanket-cover cities? For fixed-line operators willing to compete against mobile operators, probably.

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  8. You are also the point that the Cloud also has relationships with other provides that allow users access. For example, the cloud allows Vonage users of the wifi phone free access to their network. That means a user with a Vonage wifi phone can make a call in any Cloud hotspot (including the City of London) for free eliminating any need for handover or roaming within the square mile.

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  9. The most important question will really be the price for the Wi-Fi access in London.

    I notice here in Berlin that I often make a quick free VoIP phone call or check my emails when I see the sign of free-hotspot.com at a café. At other, paid, hotspots I don’t stop.

    Wi-Fi on fresh air is nice to have but it’s not so necessary as to pay for it. Only in one case: Many of my friends are looking for free or cheap hotspots near their homes so that they can cancel their telephone and DSL contracts.

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