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Norwich pioneers free city wi-fi

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Norwich is pioneering a free wi-fi project which covers three sectors of the UK city and its centre.

The £1.1m, 18-month pilot has been live for three weeks and is backed by the East of England Development Agency.

Paul Adams, from Norfolk county council said: "It allows people to see the benefit of wireless technology."

The city centre, county hall and educational establishments such as the university all have wi-fi access.

Mr Adams, director of corporate resources and cultural services, said: "The original idea was to use it as a demonstration project - to wireless-enable a significant part of the city so we could begin to see what the benefits were in terms of economic development, benefit for the public and public services workers."

More than 200 antennas are positioned around the city, mainly on lampposts, creating blanket wi-fi coverage.

The city is one giant hotspot, utilising a mesh network which means users can get seamless internet access as they wander the streets.

Kurt Frary, who managed the project at the local authority said: "As a mesh network, if one of the lamppost aerials were to fail, the whole system will compensate to find a way through.

'Glitch free'

"We had 1,800 connections in the first week, more than 2,500 in the second and 3,000 in the third.

Net cafe

The council says it does not want to impact on commercial services

"It's been glitch free so far - we have had very few technical problems."

The network has two speeds - 256Kbps for the public and 1Mbps for public sector workers - which are slower than typical broadband speeds found in the home.

"The one thing we don't want to do is compete with commercial companies," said Mr Adams.

"We have a speed of 256Kbps in order to not compete with wireless hotspots. But they are still relatively small in a place like Norwich."

Users are also limited to a one-hour session and have to reconnect after 60 minutes.

People access the wi-fi simply by agreeing to terms and conditions on a portal page that their web browser will point towards when a connection is made between a device and the network.

"We designed the portal to be as accessible to as many different wi-fi devices as possible," said Mr Frary.

He added: "There are now so many devices that have wi-fi - from laptops, to PDAs, PlayStation portables, mobile phones and even games consoles."

As an unsecured wi-fi network there are security implications for people considering using the internet access to exchange sensitive information.

'Safe as possible'

Mr Frary said: "We would advise people to use the same precautions as you would at home - using a firewall and anti-virus software.

"For business users we recommend using a VPN (virtual private network) to be as safe as possible."

Mr Adams said the local authority was interested to see how people used the network.

"What we want to explore is the potential for public service workers out and about to save coming back to offices and to link into information systems back at their base.

"A lot of public service work does go on in or around people's homes, particularly in such areas as care work.

"Another application being explored is mobile CCTV."

Mr Adams said early figures showed high usage around the University of East Anglia, the college in the city and the central library.

"Educational use, student use and the virtual learning environment is going to be a big use," he said,

He added: "We are going to be fascinated to see how it grows, where it goes. As time goes on we will do more research on how people are using it and what applications are going on.

"We don't know what will happen when the project ends. Technology may have moved on. We don't know what the final result will be.

In BBC News, 31 de Agosto de 2006


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