London’s Olympic Wi-Fi Network Edges Closer

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The Government is said to be planning a free Wi-Fi network around London in time for the Olympics

Six companies have been short-listed in order to deliver free Wi-Fi around London in time for the Olympic Games.

Various media sources reported that a free Wi-Fi network around London is planned, amid concern that the mobile phone network in the nation’s capital could go into meltdown during the games.

The six Wi-Fi providers that have been short-listed include BT, Sky, 02 and Virgin. Details are expected to be announced in November, and until then the suppliers are in a quiet period as part of the procurement process.

Westminster Statement

What is known however is that Westminster City Council is expected to be the first authority to roll-out a free Wi-Fi network. Other areas are expected to follow suit.

“Westminister Council has short-listed six bids for a long-term contract to build to a borough-wide public Wi-Fi system, and is due to announce the winner in November,” a spokesman for Westminster City Council told eWEEK Europe UK.

However there are concerns that the government has left it very late in the day to deploy a Wi-Fi network in time for the games, next July.

“With the eyes of the world on London next summer, it will be a missed opportunity if we don’t show our capital to be a leading connected city on the global stage,” a Virgin Media spokesperson said, in an emailed statement to eWEEK Europe UK.

Short Timeframe

“Millions of Londoners, visitors from other parts of the UK and international tourists will want and expect to easily access the internet on the move,” the spokesman said. “Widespread, consistent, open Wi-Fi will ensure everyone can share their experiences of what should be the greatest show on Earth.”

“They will want keep in touch with friends and family who might be elsewhere in London, at the Games or back home and it will also help people find out more about local attractions, places of interest, or the world class shopping and restaurants that this city offers, helping Britain’s economy,” the spokesperson said.

“We’ve a real desire to show London at its best and it can still be done in time,” the spokesperson concluded.

Likely Setup

And this Wi-Fi network will have an important role to play in easing the strain on London’s mobile phone network during the games. It is likely to be concentrated on the areas that will be most affected by the Olympic Games, namely zone 1 in London and of course the venue itself.

In order to ensure that coverage is not just limited to the Wi-Fi signal range within a particular hotspot (like in a Wi-Fi enabled cafe), it is seems likely that the short-listed suppliers will use existing street furniture such as lamposts to install their access points. These access points, which would need to be installed every 80 to 100 metres, would then connect into the fibre and copper backhaul.

Capacity Crunch

Whatever happens, there are real concern that existing networks will not cope. Last week London mayor Boris Johnson warned that next year’s London Olympics will push today’s 3G networks to their limits. This came as femtocell maker Picochip said that London needs large numbers of micro cell towers by 2015 in order to provide good LTE  mobile broadband.

And mobile operator 3UK recently warned that its network is facing a capacity crunch, and that the data demands of smartphones and tablets could exhaust capacity by the end of 2012 unless the company can buy more spectrum.

As smartphones become ever more data hungry, they are rapidly swallowing the capacity of mobile networks, especially in the crowded south east of England.

This capacity crunch of mobile phone networks was starkly illustrated in December 2009, when O2 suffered a number of embarrassing network failures in London. The operator was forced to admit at that time that the crash was caused by the data strain from the increasing use of smartphones.

The last time the UK experiences such a surge in mobile traffic was during the Royal wedding. Indeed, Vodafone reportedly installed portable 3G base stations near Kate Middleton’s home village of Bucklebury, ahead of the wedding.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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