The State of Wireless London


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This study looks at how wireless networking (WLAN) in London has developed over the last three years from hacktivist pastime to mainstream pursuit. Comparing networks built by freenetwork groups, commercial hotspot providers, and public sector initiatives the study also examines the sales and uptake of WLAN equipment and makes some direct measurements of wireless activity in the Greater London area. Finally the study looks at the development of WLAN in the home and makes a recommendation for a Wireless Festival for London in 2004/2005.

The State of London


Before we look at the State of Wireless London let’s briefly examine the State of London by looking at a few key readily recognisable cartographical elements that are commonly used to delineate it. As a civic settlement the city was most likely founded by the Romans around 47 AD and called Londinium. The name was derived from pre-Celtic Old European – Plowonida meaning something like wide flowing river [1]_. The settlement was at a strategic crossing point of Thames and also formed a useful port. After the Roman invasion of AD 43, having a centre that could act as a hub on their existing sea borne network would have been important to maintain chains of command and trade with the rest of the empire. The archaeological remains that date Londonium’s foundation is a wooden drain found next to the start of the Roman Road, which points to Londonium’s role as an early intermodal transport hub.

To represent this network prehistory from when London was a prime green field site awaiting development, I have included the river Thames, the emblematic north south split at the centre of London, and the environmental feature that led to its initial location.

Jumping forward in time past different eras and over the administrations that have ruled London since Roman times, we come to 1965, and the creation of the Greater London Council. Since 1887, London had been administrated by the London County Council, which had been under Labour Control since 1934. A Conservative government sought enlargement of the Inner London boundary to include the Conservative voting suburbs. This was completed in 1965 and resulted in a body with much infrastructural responsibility including public transport and road schemes.

Ironically, despite several Conservative administrations, the GLC was to always be governed by the party that was in opposition nationally. In the 1981 elections – when the Thatcherite government was in full swing – control went to Labour and Ken Livingstone with his leftist agenda. Ideological conflict between the GLC and Central Government, presented at the time as differences over budget allocation, eventually led to the abolition of the body in 1986.

The civic boundary drawn in this map marks an identity for London and its infrastructural administration as being a site of political contest, and marks the tension between London’s dual role as sovereign city state within the nation state, and as the capital of the nation state.

After the abolition of the GLC in 1986, administrative control of London passed to the constituent boroughs. London was left without any coherent leadership and without a clear cartographic image to represent it.After over ten years of construction the M25 was officially opened by Margret Thatcher in October 1986, neatly filling this identity vacuum. London was redrawn as defined by its place in the road network, reinforcing the centrality of the car culture with its focus on the individual, creating new opportunities for badge engineered status symbolism and embodying the packetisation of private transport.

The M25 had its own unforeseen network effects. By connecting the edge of London’s road network for the first time, a space was created for the emerging rave culture.

“Immediately a new, anarchic culture evolved on the road, partly to do with Ecstasy and partly with mobile phones,” (Iain Sinclair. London Orbital ) [2]_

This culture, with its DIY bedroom music studios and self-organised parties was in some ways a precursor to the new digital media landscape. Techno, not actually very digital in its production process, gave an image or maybe a feeling of the future networked digital utopia.

As the focus shifted towards a more inward looking view, a view into the network and the possibilities it offered, place and location became less important and were replaced by transglobal connection, the spatial magic of the internet.

Following the boom, a period of distorted values and valuations where everything touched by the internet lost its connection to geographic and economic realities, there came the crash in 2000. Independent and ground-up approaches to new technologies emerged in its wake, and wireless networking was one of these.

Wireless freenetworking came as an antidote to the commercial pipe dreams of telcos and investors, and with its focus on the ownership of infrastructure and local and co-operative action, it can be seen as a grounding of internet utopianism in something real, useful and manageable.

Over the last three years the wireless and free networking space has developed rapidly around the world, and now we can take a moment to look at London through a fresh set of eyes, to map a new layer on the map of London’s infrastructural history, the State of Wireless London.

The Eyes

Wireless is a versatile term that conjures up images of war time huddles around Bakelite sets and describes a huge range of electromagnetic emissions including long wave, shortwave, visible light and radar. This study does not look at the entirety of wireless activity but focuses only on a certain radio frequency and a group of technologies that has been an enabler for freenetworking – the self-provision of computer networks.

This frequency is 2.4Ghz. It is one of the few frequencies available in the UK for use by citizens which does not require a license from the national regulatory authority. This arrangement is termed license exemption, and 2.4 Ghz is peculiar in that it is license exempt in many jurisdictions around the world. This exemption is the result of the status of 2.4 Ghz as part of a guard band around the frequencies used by microwave ovens, which was considered by regulators to be a trash band, unusable on noise grounds. It was therefore opened up for public use, though within strict power limits.

In contrast to other bands, this exemption meant that there was no licensing restriction or cost of usage, and technology vendors focused on the band as a place to develop products justifying a large r&d spend with a potentially huge market opportunity. Even though the band had been declared an unusable trash band, the low opportunity cost and international market for products drove technological innovation to overcome these difficulties.

Product development was also enabled by open standards in particular the 802.11 group of standards(b, a, g) developed by the IEEE [3]_ Just as the 802.3 standards that define wired Ethernet ensure that any compliant network device connected to an Ethernet network will work correctly, the 802.11 standards strictly define wireless LAN. The existence of the standards allows for vendor-neutral interoperability, in effect creating the space for a WLAN market to develop.

In 2000 these factors came together with the release of 802.11b products operating in the 2.4 Ghz band. They were high speed, compared to other wireless networking technologies operating at up to 11 Mbps, and above all cheap. The products were rapidly taken up by people wishing to self-provide their own networks and prices have continued to fall and speeds to rise, as WLAN equipment becomes a cheap commodity and the technology improves.

This study looks at London through eyes tuned to 802.11 activity in 2.4 Ghz, and surveys the various groups that have taken it up. This type of networking is called either by the technical standard ‘802.11b’, the marketing term ‘WiFi’, or the generic ‘wireless’. In this study I use the term ‘WLAN’ for wireless LAN as a non-technical, non-marketing, but more specific term.


Unlike other areas of the radio spectrum, the license exempt nature of 2.4 Ghz means that there is no formal procedure required to register usage. Regulation takes place at the device level and the regulator has no idea where equipment is installed or used. This simplicity contributes to the popular appeal of license exemption.

In other frequencies such as those used by GSM, registration is mandatory and the Radio Authority holds a public database of GSM installations [4]_ In quasi-exempt frequencies such as 5 Ghz band C there will be a registration requirement for a minimal fee. Planning authorities are also rarely informed of installations as the antenna size used is unobtrusive and normally does not require planning permission.

This means that the regulator does not keep statistics on coverage or usage in 2.4 Ghz and it has been up to user groups and other interested parties to construct their own databases of installations and maps of uptake as needed. Examples of these were created early on by Wireless Freenetworkers, later to be followed by commercial providers.

Early in the development of Freenetwork Groups, databases of node installations and intended locations were established both to attempt to locate local people interested in self-providing networks and to publicise the existence of the networks for roaming third parties to access. Examples of these are the Consume node database [5]_ and international freenetwork mapping efforts such as [6]_.

As commercial providers began to roll out their wireless network services, so too they have started building node maps of WiFi coverage and location. Jiwire [7]_ holds a comprehensive database of commercial hotspots that Intel uses for its Centrino certified hotspot campaign and the Ordnance Survey [8]_ also maintains a map used by Zdnet and others.

Notably among all the mappings of wireless activity there are no maps that show both commercial activity and freenetwork activity together. The public view of the state of Wireless London is split, depending on where and how you look.

These views are also highly selective. They only show nodes that people have a reason to publicise, either for commercial or pragmatic community reasons, and this gives a necessarily limited view, as there must be much equipment that is just in use. To cover this gap we take a third empirical view of wireless in London, using direct measurement of wireless network activity with a laptop, attached card and stumbling software. This process known as war driving, war cycling, war pramming even, yields good direct evidence of activity which has been collated into global databases and maps such as those found at [9]_

Here we collect data from these three sources into one map, not as a definitive guide but as a statement of intent to effectively map the state of wireless in London in all its forms, and see a new view of London’s contemporary information infrastructure emerge.