While other areas and the government is talking about what to do, it seems that Swindon Council has taken the bull by the horns and with partners has created a company called Digital City UK to roll-out a Wi-Fi network across the borough.
The website for the service which is to be known as Signal is relatively sparse, but people can register for an update as the service goes live. The first area of Swindon to be connected will be Highworth, with the remaining areas completed by April 2010.
The free service will be limited in terms of usage, but should allow for basic web browsing and email and people will have the option to sign up for a 20Meg service. The price has not been published but it is said to be significantly less than major broadband services, and charging only starts after a three month trial. For non-residents, pay as you go options are planned.
Swindon is unusual in that it has perhaps the highest broadband penetration in the country. Back in 2007 this was running at around 65% of households, but housing estates under construction were known for slow or no broadband access. This problem was largely solved by the rare situation of BT creating a new telephone exchange.
The new Wi-Fi service appears to be aware of the problems of getting a Wi-Fi signal into properties. Older properties often suffer from thick walls, and newer build properties with the emphasis on insulation will have things like a thin metallic foil on windows to prevent heat loss, and foil backed plasterboard. There is talk of the supply of wireless repeaters and it seems these will form a personal firewall for each home. The issue of security is addressed by the use of WPA encryption, with we presume individual keys so that each user's own data is secure.
How much this new network eats into the revenue from the commercial broadband providers will depend on what the various restrictions on the network are, and what peak time speeds are like. If the service is very popular and works well, then firms such as BT may see revenues drop quickly in the area, and this would likely affect any plans for any FTTC roll-out. The lessons from areas that rolled out their own cable TV many years ago need to be learnt to avoid what could be a good network now becoming a folly in a couple of years time. In broadband terms, this means ensuring the network can cope with increasing demands on bandwidth and give consumers speeds of service that will keep pace with the best that is available.