The State of Wireless London


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Public Sector Networks

.. image:: img/public-sector.png :alt: Public sector network boroughs

In the last few years public sector bodies in London such as local authorities have begun to use WLAN. Several different organisations are currently making pilot studies and starting wireless initiatives. This section looks at a selection of these projects.

In other parts of the country public sector wireless initiatives focus on providing broadband access to regions that have not yet met BT ADSL trigger levels or have no cable TV provider and hence have no commercial high-speed internet supplier. In these cases there is no other option but to create a new infrastructure and in some areas this has been led by councils often in partnership with community groups. These projects are often framed by the ‘digital divide’ discourse, specifically the divide of access to high speed networking. Regions without access are simply not able to participate in the emerging ‘information society’ or the ‘information economy’. As such funding of the projects has often been enabled through regional development agencies, many of these projects are as part of long term regeneration budgets.

In London there is no real shortage of access to network capacity, with much of the city cabled with fibre, and all of it within range of ADSL enabled British Telecom exchanges with many different services on offer depending on budget. In London issues often centre around social inclusion, who has the knowledge and ability to access network technology, and who has the means to be able to afford it. Wireless with its flexible topologies, and low hardware costs is being seen in London as a way of physically bringing network access into local communities, and as a way for public bodies to encourage participation by direct offer of service. Other councils are using wireless as a way of attracting people to physical places, to encourage a more fluid use of public spaces within the city, to increase the functionality of Civic Centres, to enhance the Public Library product offering.


Westminster City Council is currently piloting a wireless network with its Wireless City concept.

“The concept of the Wireless City is potentially one of the most exciting developments in Westminster’s history. It will allow us to offer opportunity to our residents through community education schemes on our housing estates and integrated social service provision across the city. We will be better able to reduce the threat and the fear of crime through a flexible approach to community safety, cleansing and CCTV – reacting to events and developments as they happen. It will also help us maintain low taxes through the savings that the scheme can offer.

The pilot scheme is already delivering benefits to the Council and the police in our fight against drug crime in central London. Arrests have already been made. As we continue to prove the scheme and roll it out to communities across the City we can share real-time information with all our officers, with other public service providers and with our residents and businesses. Westminster is set to become a community united by cutting edge technology and sharing in the benefits of progress.”

Councillor Simon Milton, Leader of Westminster Council [33]_

The project objectives of supporting social services and education though wireless technologies seem mainly of benefit to the council officers – we can envision the social service operative equipped with state of the art wireless information tools at the point of sale. In the Westminster report ‘Implementing Electronic Government 2’ [34]_ much is made of the new CSI, a customer relationship management system designed to enable greater participation in e-government. This translates to database cross referencing and the ability of council officers to access information collected from any point in the organisation as needed. WLAN in this context allows extension of access to the CSI, providing an extension of the Westminster council corporate LAN and the town hall office environment. It provides an infrastructure for data collection and enforcement, extending the council into the physical space of the city. From the customer/citizen point of view the network also enables new user interfaces to the council organisation with information kiosks in libraries and on the street becoming the public’s points of access to the CSi.

Notably the network also enables a more pervasive surveillance architecture, lowering the cost of connecting additional city centre CCTV modules, offering opportunity, delivering beneficial arrests. The network provides a way of connecting noise monitoring equipment installed on lamp posts to investigate the 17,000 noise complaints received by the council every year. [35]_ One might term this pervasive local government.

The network is publicly owned and maintained, that is to say it is owned and administered by Westminster Council. While nominally this means that the voting and local tax paying community are ‘owners’ of the infrastructure, in practice this is administered through a long and indirect accountability chain. The decision making process that would allow a resident who wished to influence the way the network was run, would perhaps have to make a case through a complaint procedure, or in the end by voting at a local election. These methods are unlikely to be effective for particular goals and tend to be only used as last resort when serious fault is found. The ownership structure does not encourage direct participation, and the usage of the network as delivery mechanism for ‘service’ and its status as wide area council corporate LAN reflects that.


This creation of public sector corporate WLAN infrastructures is not without its problems as the experience of the London Borough of Newham shows. In 2000 they pioneered the interconnection of hundreds of council premises using WLAN as a way of taking control of their in-house networking requirements, but ran into problems of spectrum co-existence.

Worst case is probably illustrated by the problems experienced in LB Newham, who were pioneers in using the ISM band to provide cheap connectivity. Many of their connections were rendered unusable by criminals using same band to uplink to pirate radio transmitters. Peter Chauncy [36]_

Note that the criminality referred to here is not the usage of the license exempt (ISM) radio spectrum as a local uplink, as this is completely permissible under the spectrum regulations, and license exemption specifically does not legislate for interference. The criminality derives from using the licensed FM radio spectrum without a license from the regulator. The FM spectrum is licensed for a fee and as such effectively ‘owned’ by commercial and public broadcasters. It is not a space for direct public usage, though the existence of ‘pirate’ radio shows that there is clearly demand for such a public medium.

The clash between the council’s spectrum usage for network connectivity and the ‘pirate’ radio uplink would perhaps have been resolvable had the parties been able to negotiate to share infrastructure and hence reconfigure their use of the spectrum. As the council cannot enter into dialog with the criminal ‘pirate’ radio users apart from through enforcement mechanisms the space becomes contested and is degraded for everyone.

The criminalisation of spectrum usage in the licensed spectrum band effectively leads to service degradation in the license exempt band of the spectrum. The conclusion that many are coming to in the spectrum commons debate is that the remedy to this problem is to increase direct public access to spectrum by radically increasing the scope of license exemption to include more spectrum. New and rapidly improving technologies that negotiate spectrum usage dynamically at the protocol level such as cognitive radio are also emerging. In effect these make the negotiation that the council was unable to make with the radio ‘pirate’ automatically in hardware. These approaches combined show a potential way out of the current artificially created resource scarcity of spectrum. [37]_

A separate project in Newham, [38]_ is a publicly funded network initiative based around the Carpenters Road estate in Newham. It has delivered a cabled network infrastructure to 70% of the residents in the estate that provides a number of services including internet access, TV and video on demand to residents. The service is based around a high-speed wired network and an interactive TV platform. The high take up is due to the fully funded nature of the network and the familiar TV interface. They are currently looking at extending the service to other buildings using wireless, and experimenting with PC connections to the network.

The network is used by residents for both external TV and internet and also for internal usage such as community generated TV programming that has been popular with residents.

Poplar Harca (Tower Hamlets)

Another initiative in East London by Poplar Harca, a provider of social housing in Tower Hamlets, is piloting a wireless network as a way of providing low-cost broadband access to its residents. A number of wireless networks have been installed as part of their strategic goal to promote residential connectivity, and wireless links have also been used to connect community buildings to each other.

“I think that one of the best opportunities in the short to medium term is the potential of wireless to establish a pilot broadband network as a test bed for the “cultural industries”. We know that in the medium to long term broadband uptake will be pervasive. Presently broadband access is restricted to corporate and academic sector, with consumers having access to “mid-band” ADSL. A platform could be established in a geographically compact area which brought together small specialist “markets” of audiences and producers. We really don’t know what full-on networked multimedia is going to look like and feel like. Innovation in this area need not be the preserve of highly capitalised entities.” Peter Chauncy Poplar Harca [37]_

The focus of the initiative is to provide access and to promote participation in local community media. This ties in with other Poplar Harca initiatives that focus on skills transfer such as computer classes and DJ workshops that are run in the community centre. The network is being created in association with LTHnet, the network run by residents of the Limehouse Town Hall studio space and Youarehere [39]_ a network initiative of net culture magazine Mute. Both of these groups have long focused on participatory approaches, running workshops where people can learn about network building and administration. This points to a future network which can connect residents and cultural centres and can provide the infrastructure for an independent local media, whilst encouraging participation in the operation of the network.

The model used here is one of establishing a number of network nodes and brokering connections with other local networks in order to seed the growth of a local network along freenetwork lines. The Poplar Harca Housing Network becomes another self-provider in the locality, responsible for maintaining its own network and its connections with its network peers but relying on protocol and relationships with network peers to make the network function in the wider local area.

The technology choice of Locust-World Mesh Boxes [19]_ provides a relatively easy technical path for extension of the network by other people in the area. The network is owned by the Poplar Harca Social Housing Organisation, a non-profit company which operates the former local authority owned buildings. The company has both local authority and resident directors, with residents making up the largest group. [40]_ In this way there is direct accountability between the residents (users) and the network administration.


In Lewisham a new initiative between CBN [62]_ and LB Lewisham takes both the models of community provision used by Poplar Harca and the creation of a corporate LAN one stage further to develop a local broadband service.

“The London Borough of Lewisham has identified the potential of wireless broadband to provide remote and mobile access to corporate systems and to deliver high bandwidth services to enhance economic and creative opportunities in Deptford. Council officers have gone one step further and identified the potential for social enterprise to provide the mechanism for delivering a local broadband service, harnessing the enthusiasm and creativity of the community.” [41]_

“Our objective is to define a community network agenda for the Deptford area in 2004/5, in support of local social enterprise initiatives to build and run high speed network infrastructure and offer public WLAN gateways (hotspots) that present local media, information and messaging resources as well as wide band internet connection for all.” [42]_

While the project shares some of the goals of Westminster’s Wireless City in providing extended access to council corporate LAN around the borough, there is also a strong emphasis on delivering a local broadband service with the participation of local freenetwork and community networking groups, voluntary sector organisations and cultural institutions.

The organisational structure used here to create and administrate the network is described as a ‘Social Enterprise’. This organisation collects revenue, is funded by its users and has a sustainable revenue stream, thus differentiating it from a purely fully funded public service paid for by taxes. However in contrast to a private company, the social enterprise is owned by its stake-holders in this case the network owners, who are participants in the governance structure of the organisation. Profits from the social enterprise are likewise reinvested in the organisation, and further social goals are served.

Some theorists notably the IEEE [43]_ and David Isenberg [44]_ argue that access networks are natural monopolies and are not as such suitable arenas in which free market competition can be expected to provide the most efficient solution in terms of network performance. Different ownership structures are needed to ensure that network users are represented in the operation of their networks, to protect them from monopolistic practices and price fixing or other control such as encroachment on media freedoms. The Social Enterprise approach seeks to create open yet accountable and inclusive structures that can include both residents, business users, Local Authorities and other stake-holders to manage the network infrastructure to avoid these pitfalls.

In the Lewisham pilot proposal much is made of the effects of ‘wide band’ access for enabling economic growth in a region, as has been the experience of rural communities in the UK. Part of this has been attributed to the network infrastructure enabling ‘creative industries’ and a pursuit of this trend can be seen in the Lewisham Pilot Project which already has made connections with arts based organisations such as the Albany Theater, dek.spc, Prangsta and Music City, as well as existing freenetworking groups such as Consume-X. [45]_

Public Sector Wireless Media

Public sector WLAN is appearing at the boundaries between existing local media and the operations of public sector bodies that administer local physical spaces. In Westminster WLAN forms a backbone between DJ beat filled sleepless nights and the daytime desks of the noise pollution office. In LB Newham WLAN marks the degradation of Newham’s corporate LAN by pirate radio uplinkers, email colliding with MP3. In Newham WLAN is extending the reach of interactive TV, in Poplar Harca WLAN is a hope for social inclusion in a participatory local media, and in Lewisham WLAN serves as a backbone between cultural institutions to jump start a local media-rich network.

The variety of uses that WLAN is being used for is a testament to the versatility of the underlying IP networking and its ability to support many media types without changing the core network. At the same time the ownership and accountability structures of each of these projects are shaping who has access to these new wireless infrastructures, what uses they are put to and the character of the media that emerges from them. The Public Sector includes the public space of the city soon to be media-augmented with WLAN. Whether our public media spaces are to be characterised by enforcement, interference, piracy, participation, inclusion, or social enterprise is a rich debate currently being argued in pilot studies and initiatives across the city which will certainly shape the diverse futures of Wireless London.

“I see the facility of deploying complex and multi-modal services
across networks with a very low cost as unprecedented. SW and CB
Radio, community cable TV and other networks have more advanced and
probably at this point, more popular use histories, but the mode of
use of these media has always been single-mode: talking and listening,
or broadcasting and watching. We may use the same network but be doing
completely disconnected things.” [46]_ Saul Albert’s survey response.