The Scrutiny Support Officer submitted a report, the purpose of which was to provide further information regarding the Panel's current topic of Wi-Fi Town.
In accordance with the draft terms of reference, Yaffa Phillips, Economic Development Officer was in attendance at the meeting to present information on the progress made by other local authorities in introducing free Wi-Fi in public areas. The Chair circulated copies of articles regarding free Wi-Fi provision in Glasgow, Hounslow, Kendal and York.
The Economic Development Officer advised that in the course of carrying out research with regard to other local authorities introducing free Wi-Fi in public areas, the contact details of the people in charge of the individual projects had been obtained, should the Panel wish to receive further information from any of these authorities.
It was highlighted that the case studies produced as part of the research were in respect of cities that had obtained funding from the Super Connected Cities Fund. Middlesbrough was not eligible to apply for this funding as only official cities with a Royal Charter were allowed to bid for this funding.
The Panel was advised that the motivation of local authorities for providing free Wi-Fi was as a public amenity and with that came digital inclusion. There were still a number of people who did not currently access online facilities. The benefits of accessing the internet included the opportunity to apply and search for jobs online, access price comparison sites, social value and the opportunity to carry out remote working.
The benefits to the Council of introducing free public Wi-Fi access could include financial returns such as the potential for revenue, concessions in relation to the town's 4G provision. It could also provide an economic stimulus and increase visitors dwell time within the town centre. The Wi-Fi could also enable other services to provide information in 'real time' e.g. the provision of timetables for buses or trains and an up to the minute update if there were delays or cancellations of services.
The cost of implementing Wi-Fi provision depended on the scale of the project in terms of the following:-
The area of coverage was determined by the number of Access Points (AP) installed, the type of AP and the range that they covered. A Zone Director controlled the AP's by bridging and routing the user on an AP to the internet connection, usually via a Radius (authentication) server.
The cost of AP's depended on whether they were located indoor or outdoor; the number of AP's and their speed and whether they were wired or Wi-Fi (to and from the network. The more users that accessed the Wi-Fi the more expensive the service would be to operate.
In terms of the case studies provided by the Economic Development Officer the Wi-Fi providers were as follows:-
● Birmingham City Council's - Virgin Media Business;
● Colchester Borough Council had initially used The Cloud however they had switched to Arqiva when The Cloud became a BSkyB company.Colchester Borough Council offered 30 minutes free Wi-Fi access and unlimited access to three different websites; the Council website, Visit Colchester and Job Centre Plus;
● Leeds and Bradford City Council's provider was Virgin Media Business and they provided free Wi-Fi within a limited area in the town centre. The Panel was advised that Virgin Media Business runs advertising on a landing page through its partner company Global Reach Technology. There was a quid pro quo arrangement in place for the use of the lamp posts for the 3G and 4G units;
● Newcastle City Council and Gateshead Council had terminated the contract that they had signed with Gowex to provide free Wi-Fi hot spots in the area and a new provider was being sought. The aim of Newcastle was to provide 1mb free which would be enough to use social media, Facebook and Google. A premium service would be available which would allow 6mb per sec for a monthly registration fee;
● York Council carried out an initial trial of providing free unlimited Wi-Fi in the City Centre funded from existing Council budgets. Provision was extended to parks and park and ride terminals in time for the Tour de France bike race. The Wi-Fi network had received over one million hits during the first three months of its operation. York provided 1mb per second per device;
● Mansfield Council provided high speed Wi-Fi covering 480,000 square metres;
● Great Yarmouth Council was working with a group that were providing CCTV in the town centre and they were using The Cloud technology.
The Panel was advised that many private sector businesses used The Cloud for Wi-Fi, particularly commercial venues. The Cloud was utilised by the city of London to provide free Wi-Fi access, though Colchester switched from The Cloud to Arqiva.
Many authorities were utilising existing street furniture for the provision of Wi-Fi. Arqiva were paying Camden Council £500k for the use of the Council's street furniture and they also paid 10% of any revenue they received as a result of leasing the street furniture to other companies. The amount a company would pay would likely be based on the projections for 4G demand based on providers in that area. Middlesbrough Council had been placed in the bottom third of authorities in terms of potential demand for 4G, according to information received from a BT representative.
It was highlighted that some companies were upgrading existing macro sites in the Middlesbrough area, so they might not require the street furniture infrastructure as used in other locations.
A Member commented that local businesses could be interested in contributing to the provision of free Wi-Fi if there was a commercial benefit to the company. He stated that in his view the Council should provide free Wi-Fi access.
It was also commented that the Council should have a clear rationale with regard to the provision of free Wi-Fi and one of the reasons should be to prevent digital exclusion in the town. As well as encouraging existing users to access the free Wi-Fi, it was important to encourage use by new users.
It was highlighted that lots of Council services could be accessed on line and it was important to extend this to other areas of the Council.
Initially when access to Wi-Fi for the public was installed in Glasgow, the aim was to provide one half hour free then impose a charge for any additional usage. After public pressure, Glasgow had however decided to offer unlimited access to free Wi-Fi through their agreement with BT. BT however reserved the right to change the access if there was abuse of the system.
The position with regard to Wi-Fi access in Middlesbrough Town Centre was as follows:-
● The Cloud was used by Marks and Spencer, (to integrate the on-line and in-store offer), Cafe Nero, W H Smith, Wetherspoons and Walkabout ;
● 02 was used by Debenhams;
● Purple Wi-Fi was used by Cleveland Centre. Purple Wi-Fi filtered the internet to restrict certain sites, in line with some of the other town centre solutions;
● Starbucks, McDonalds, Barclays and HSBC also had free public Wi-Fi access;
● Captain Cook Square utilised Open Zone. In order to use this facility Wi-Fi users were required to agree to receive commercial messages from the shopping centre and BT; and
The Economic Development Officer advised the Panel that BT had indicated that when providing free Wi-Fi access to Councils, the company had traditionally negotiated a ten year contract with the authority to have exclusive access to the authority's street furniture for 4G small cell deployment in a deal including the provision of free Wi-Fi. The free W-Fi was secondary to the set-up of 4G network cells to sell on to mobile companies.
The Panel was advised that a pure concession model worked well for larger cities where there was a greater demand for 4G.
Examples of arrangements could include connecting the Wi-Fi to CCTV or giving public assets to companies which would mean that the company would be responsible for the ongoing costs and maintenance of the asset.
A pure concession model would depend on the demands of mobile operators. In terms of putting together a tender to maximise 4G coverage, the current estimate for Middlesbrough was that it would require 100 small cell sites over the next 10 years, according to a representative of BT.
It was highlighted that preliminary research had revealed that it could cost the Council in the region of £200k to install between 20 and 40 outdoor APs for a 10 year period, including maintenance costs with an estimated additional £20k to link up to the Town Hall which was a Grade II Listed Building. It was pointed out that the above figures were a rough estimation and further research was required in respect of other local authorities and major providers of these services.
In response to a query with regard to how disruptive the installation of free Wi-Fi would be, the Panel was advised that it was dependant on how the Wi-Fi was installed. If it was on lamp posts, it would cause very little disruption but if it was connected to a box, it could require planning permission. The Council would need to budget for an additional 7-10% for ongoing maintenance costs, if this was not included in the deal that they brokered.
It was agreed by the Panel that the public should be able to access free Wi-Fi provided by the Council. It was suggested that the Wi-Fi should be marketed with a brand name such as Love Middlesbrough in order to promote the town.
The Economic Development Officer suggested that the Panel might wish to receive further information in respect of York City Council. York City Council utilised their-own network infrastructure. York also had a number of Grade II Listed Buildings in the town. The City of York used Pinacl Solutions for the provision of free Wi-Fi for users 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Pinacl also used Ruckus AP's support mesh which meant that in most cases no cabled network was required. York also used Purple Wi-Fi, a cloud-based social Wi-Fi software company that enabled the City of York Council to gain access to data from the network, such as footfall and how public spaces in the centre were being used. There was however some criticism in the regional media over privacy concerns, which is an emerging issue with data usage in such ways.
The Chair of Overview and Scrutiny Board referred to the bid that was due to be submitted to the Capital Programme in respect of the provision of free Wi-Fi and suggested that it would be useful for the Panel to confirm support for the bid.
The Economic Development Officer advised that a number of organisations in the north-east including some social housing providers were hosting 'Techy Tea Parties' where people could learn about using the internet in an informal setting. It was highlighted that the housing group Thirteen had a digital inclusion strategy. The Panel suggested that this could be an issue for further exploration given the increase in on-line services such as the forthcoming roll-out of Universal Credit.
Champions were trained to assist people with using tablets etc. Barclays Bank had digital champions to assist clients with the use of digital technology. HMRC had also set up a champions scheme to assist people with the use of technology. http://www.go-on.co.uk/get-involved/northeast/
The Chair suggested that as the WAN was not due to be rolled out until January 2015, the Panel should put together a list of possible requirements for inclusion in the tender documentation for the provision of free Wi-Fi.
A Member suggested that it could be beneficial to further explore developments in other towns of similar size to Middlesbrough to see what they were providing in terms of Wi-Fi provision and to ascertain what type of funding was obtained.
It was also suggested that the Panel it could be beneficial to investigate the possibility of a Tees Valley approach to the provision of free Wi-Fi as the combined approach could move Middlesbrough from out of the bottom third of authorities in terms of potential demand for 4G and open up the possibility of attracting different streams of funding.
A Member commented that they had attended a seminar at Middlesbrough Football Club which was to promote a project on digital inclusion and encourage greater access. It was highlighted that a Chair of the Residents Panel at Coast and Country had received training to become a digital champion and provided sessions on the use of digital technology for residents.
The Panel suggested that the Scrutiny Support Officer draft the Final Report on the topic of Wi-Fi Town.
AGREED as follows:-
1. That a representative from Thirteen be invited to attend the next Panel meeting to discuss development of its digital inclusion strategy.
2. That Teesside University be approached for information concerning its free Wi-Fi provision for students.