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UK cities quarrel over Wi-Fi claims

Our city's more unwired than yours

UK cities are expanding their plans for Wi-Fi – but an ugly quarrel has broken out, as each accuses the others of betraying the dream of free, open access.

Bristol has signed up with Cityspace to extend a 3km zone which offers free Wi-Fi to all comers, and supports council workers. Islington is extending its Technology Mile, which covers the A1 road, also with Cityspace.

Meanwhile Westminster is leading BT's plan for twelve Wireless Cities, announced in May. The scheme extends a BT system using Cisco equipment for wireless CCTV cameras that started two years ago, and will cover seven square miles, supporting council workers on mobile devices, and offering paid-for wireless access through BT Openzone. Of the twelve BT wireless cities, half will use a CT/Cisco system, while half will use a Motorola system based on a mesh equipment from Tropos Networks.

For its part, the Cloud has a plan to unwire the City of London which has now been delayed to go live in January, and will include commercial Wi-Fi service. The company also announced schemes for city Wi-Fi zones in Stuttgart, Germany and Karlskrona in Sweden.

But with the explosion in city wireless schemes has come rivalry. "Our expansion in Bristol is real, and BT's is just a press release," said Marc Meyohas, chief executive of Cityspace, which is extending an existing 3km Wi-Fi zone in Bristol. "I challenge you to look in a year's time to see how far BT's implementation has come."

The Bristol zone already has 15,000 users a month, according to Stephen Hilton, digital divide director for the city's council. Islington's Technology Mile (actually 2.5 miles long), now has 9,000 users a month, and councillor Terry Stacey says homeless people are using it regularly in libraries and in charity projects such as the St Mary's Centre.

"Our 12 cities will be deployed by the end of March next year," said an indignant Steve Hurdle, programme director of BT's Wireless Cities programme, announced in May. "The kit is ordered, and is being delivered in January," said George Kilpatrick, the global director for the BT account at Motorola.

It may be real, but the BT scheme won't be as open as the others, warned Niall Murphy, CTO and founder of the Cloud. "With BT, the services available will depend on what BT decides." By contrast, he claimed the Cloud will be neutral. "Any application can run – it's a level playing field," he said.

In fact, both the Cloud and BT's Wireless Cities will also allow multiple operators to offer service, just as hotspots have done for some time. However, BT is definitely not keen on free Wi-Fi as offered in Bristol and Islington. "I don't believe we'll see free Wi-Fi except in places where councils have decided to spend large amounts of public money," Hurdle said.

One service that could be said to benefit from BT's Wi-Fi cities will be the Fusion converged phone service, the Wi-Fi version of which is (over)due next year. Users – who must have BT Broadband at home or in their office – will be able to use a converged Wi-Fi/mobile phone (yet to be launched) to make VoIP (voice over IP) calls at landline rates over whole cities that have Openzone services or roaming agreements. "Fusion will be convenient, cheap and easier to use," said Hurdle.

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