Yesterday (16th December 2009) I attended the launch of Signal, the district-wide wifi network for Swindon. Well, actually, I missed the main event. It was always going to be a tall order to get to Swindon and back in a day, but two cancelled trains and two that were both half an hour late on the outward journey meant I missed the main launch. Nevertheless, I was able to have some interesting chats with a number of people involved in the initiative, following on from a previous discussion I had with Rikki Hunt, the Chief Executive of Digital City UK, the company which is implementing the network.
I have come across some skeptical views about the initiative, some people think it’s a distraction from the inevitable race to install fibre networks everywhere, others just think it will never work because wifi networks have been installed elsewhere and have not worked. Rikki and his colleagues are adamant, nevertheless, that they have learned all the lessons of previous initiatives, and their modern, robust infrastructure will deliver their aim of 20Mb/s synchronous connections across the area, including the rural communities.
A key feature of the Swindon initiative is the intention to give everyone free access to the network for 2 hours per day. This is an experiment worth watching as it could be a major driver for digital inclusion. There are ambitious plans to use the network to increase the uptake of digital public services, and there will be offers allowing householders and businesses to add other services such as home security and energy monitoring to their basic broadband package. Another interesting aspect of local plans, is the launch of a local branded phone SIM card, which will enable free phone calls within the district.
The launch event took place at Highworth Library. The first part of the network went live around Highworth, which is a village some 7 miles or so from the town of Swindon, thus demonstrating the ability of the network to reach into rural areas. The plan is for the whole of the district to be covered by the middle of 2010.
Teachers and students from the local school were invited to learn more about the implementation of the network, and I was able to film part of a discussion between Rikki Hunt (on the right of shot), his colleague Mustafa Arif (left of shot), and John Saunders, Head Teacher (second from left), and Philip Manghorn (Head of ICT) of Highworth Warneford School.
I think there may be some particularly exciting opportunities to experiment in an area where school students will be able to access material in school, in their homes, and on the move in between them.
Later in the day, members of the local community were invited to learn about the new network and discuss their concerns and queries with those involved. I filmed part of a lively discussion between Rikki Hunt and some interested local residents.
I aim to keep in touch with the development of this exciting and interesting initiative. It’s launch came on the same day that Manchester Digital Development Agency went public on the experiments it is doing with making free wifi available in the city centre. So, this approach may well be spreading.