Going to town

Wi-Fi gets urban from March with four million people in city ‘hotspots’ able to connect wirelessly to the internet via laptops, PDAs and Wi-Fi enabled phones. Niall Firth reports.


The UK seems to be entering a golden age of mobile communications technology. The proliferation of more sophisticated mobile phones, laptops and mobile gaming consoles, and the networking technologies to support them, mean that there are ever more ways to connect wirelessly to the internet.



Now a major initiative led by Wi-Fi network operator The Cloud means that nine UK cities are about to experience a boom in wireless networking.



However, while wireless technology advances apace in the UK, on a global scale wrangles in the background over standards, along with jostling for market position by major manufacturers, threaten to stymie progress towards a wire-free future. Indeed, the international wireless community will anxiously study the uptake of Wi-Fi here for clues as to how the complex interface between technology, business and consumer habits plays out.



There will be plenty of data to examine. The city-sized hotspots planned by The Cloud will be the largest ever unveiled in the UK, and it is claimed that the initiative is the first major campaign to bring coverage to an entire city since the existing mobile phone networks were developed in the early 1990s.



In collaboration with BT, public phone boxes in Edinburgh, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, Oxford, Liverpool and Cambridge, as well three London boroughs, will be fitted with Wi-Fi transmitters to provide city-wide wireless broadband access. The first phase of the project is due to be completed by March and, according to The Cloud, it will allow more than four million people across the UK to connect wirelessly to the internet via laptops, PDAs and Wi-Fi enabled mobile phones.



This is not the first time that The Cloud has been involved in creating large urban ‘hotzones’. Last year it was involved in equipping the CanaryWharf financial district in London with blanket Wi-Fi coverage. The Cloud also Wi-Fi enabled Old Trafford, the Royal Festival Hall and the British Library, but this initiative will be its largest urban project to date.



Rather than monopolising the provision of Wi-Fi in the city, The Cloud’s networks will be open for any service provider that would like to sell advanced wireless services to its customers. This is the approach that The Cloud has also taken with its other Wi-Fi hotzones in Germany and Sweden.



The new city networks will immediately be available to people who use BT Openzone, O2, SkypeZones and Nintendo Wi-Fi. Over the next year the networks will be extended for users of other service providers such as T-Mobile, NTL and TalkTalk.



Adrian Drury, The Cloud’s in-house analyst, said: ‘Wi-Fi is a very good technology for wireless IP coverage in dense urban areas and it has a very high throughput rate.’ In Drury’s opinion, the massive increase in Wi-Fi availability is a direct result of the increase in enabled devices beyond the conventional laptop.



‘Traditionally Wi-Fi has been a networking technology for notebook PCs,’ he said. ‘For the past two and a half years public access to wireless networks has been restricted to notebook in small areas such as cafés. But the traditional PC-based system is no longer much use if you want continuous Wi-Fi access, on the move, via your mobile phone.’



The Cloud will use ‘meshed networks’ to provide full coverage across the cities. Meshing uses overlapping hotspot areas to provide seamless Wi-Fi coverage. ‘We will deploy the bases across the city in such a way that it will appear to the user that they are inside one giant hotspot,’ said Drury.



However, while plans to Wi-Fi enable much of urban Britain continue, the future development of the technology at a global scale is proceeding less smoothly. In an echo of the same fractious debate that muddied the standards process for supporters of Bluetooth and Ultra Wide Band, wireless broadband standardisation headed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is suffering from a mutiny among its leading players.



Early in 2005 the IEEE formed a working group aimed at establishing a standard for the next-generation Wi-Fi called 802.11n, which will use a new technology known as multiple input/multiple output (MIMO). MIMO algorithms in a radio chipset send out information over two or more antennas. The radio signals reflect off objects, creating multiple paths that in conventional radios cause interference and fading. MIMO technology uses these paths to carry more information, which is recombined on the receiving side by the MIMO algorithms. It has been estimated that MIMO technology will be able to at least quadruple the data rates of existing wireless LANs.



A consortium of 27 Wi-Fi industry leaders led by Intel formed a coalition in October to push their own version of 802.11n. The Enhanced Wireless Consortium has developed its own specification of the new standard, in a bid to speed up the standards process and to make sure that the specifications needed for their own components are included. The benefit for Intel and the other members of EWC would be that companies in the consortium could start manufacturing 802.11n chipsets before the standards are formally approved, safe in the knowledge that their equipment will at least be compatible with that of the other EWC members.



However, critics of the breakaway group argue that the Intel proposal leans too heavily in favour of PC devices and does not take into consideration the recent emergence of many other more portable Wi-Fi enabled devices of the type that are driving up use in the UK.



According to Philip Solis, a Wi-Fi analyst at ABI Research, there was much concern from major mobile handset developers such as Nokia and Motorola that the EWC proposal was not taking their products into account in its specifications, specifically regarding power-save features for handheld devices. Nevertheless, he is confident that the ratification of 802.11n will take place by the end of 2006.



The Cloud is taking the pragmatic approach that until 802.11n is finalised, the preceding protocols — 802.11a, b and g — are more than capable of fulfilling the services required of them. ‘802.11n will happen when it happens,’ said Drury. ‘In a competitive chipset market it is all about people trying to get their IP into the standards. Everybody in the 802.11n world realises they will have to play a bit of Realpolitik until everything gets sorted out.’



Standards are not the only issue facing Wi-Fi. The technology is likely to face formidable competition in the shape of 3G mobile networks, which will offer consumers alternative means of checking their e-mails and browsing the internet on the move.



Sam Lucero, senior analyst at ABI Research, believes that in comparison with the US, Wi-Fi growth in Europe generally is likely to be rather slow. He said that one of the main reasons for this is that services-based competition — in which service providers can piggyback on existing facilities — reduces the incentive for companies to develop their own distinct wireless infrastructures.



‘We believe the paradigm for wireless internet access in Europe will be more of a 3G phenomenon, rather than a municipal Wi-Fi phenomenon,’ said Lucero. ‘But The Cloud announcement does leave us cautiously optimistic that the UK might prove a precedent to the overall trends that we see playing out in Europe.’