Bradford And Leeds: Can 4G Really Fund Free Wi-Fi?

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

Virgin Media is using small cells to deliver free Wi-Fi and 4G. Peter Judge wonders if there might be some conflict there.

It’s good news to hear that Leeds and Bradford are getting free Wi-Fi, and Virgin Media Business‘s 4G-friendly small cell implementation looks like a good and future-proof way to provide the service. But have the cities thought through the potential conflict of interests?

Metro Wi-Fi was a big idea in the early years of this century. City authorities were going to use their street furniture and roofs to provide free Wi-Fi to citizens, funded by adverts and premium Wi-Fi services, while the cities would get improved infrastructure for their public services.

Leeds night city metro wi-fi © PMACD|PHOTOGRAPHY Shutterstock

It didn’t work out though, as the business model was broken. People won’t pay for Wi-Fi, and 3G data took off meaning that the free services actually had to work well or people wouldn’t use them. Metro Wi-Fi projects still show up on the radar, but the majority have not materialised, like Boris Johnson’s idea of a Wi-Fi blanket for London.

Alternative data pipes

What has changed now is that cellular data networks are bursting at the seams, and the only real way to increase their capacity is to shrink the size of the cells they use. If you have a million people all wanting to download several Mbps of data, the only way to do it is to give them more access points to use – and that means each cell covers a smaller area.

Now, the idea of putting radio systems on lamp-posts has been in circulation for a while, and I personally heard it proposed for increasing mobile coverage by a company called Littlefeet back in 2000. It’s become viable – even essential – now, simply because of the massive increase in the amount of data customers are using.

Local authorities own lamp-posts, which are ideal for any wireless deployment, as they have a power supply, and clear air around them with a long visibility.

The difficulty would be that a deal with any single mobile operator would open the authority up to criticism or legal action by its rivals.

Virgin can claim a neutral position there, and it also has a great fibre network, so it’s a natural partner for the local authorities in this project (the same would also apply to BT, of course).

Leeds and Bradford will be getting Wi-Fi services from the lamp-posts, while  they will also have 4G small cells, on which EE and/or other mobile operators will be able to lease capacity for their own services.

The only drawback I can see is that the free Wi-Fi service will have to be crippled in some way, or else  why would users let their phones roam onto the 4G small cells?  Many people opt easily for commercial cellular data over Wi-Fi , because they find Wi-Fi too much of a hassle to find and register for. But even so, a good overlapping  Wi-Fi network would decrease the use – and therefore the value to operators – of a 4G service.

The issue will be worked out, I would guess, by setting the speed of the Wi-Fi low, adding plenty of ads, and perhaps limiting its geographical coverage.

I’m sure that between them Virgin, the Wi-Fi provider Global Reach Technology which is building the actual Wi-Fi network, and the city councils can work out settings which mean the free service is still of value, but when free mixes with paid-for services, there will have to be a distinction.

That’s a shame for the dreams of free public Wi-Fi, but it is reality.

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