Birmingham Wi-Fi: You're Doing It Wrong
Birmingham tuned in to wireless revolution reported this august organ on Monday and since I posted a long screed declaring the current wifi provision in the city to be a bit rubbish the other week I feel the need to respond.
Since the actual report this is based on appears not to be online we only have Steve Pain's article to go on, so let's Fisk this beast and figure out what it actually means. (No offense intended to Steve here, I hasten to add. He's just reporting what they give him.)
Use of Birmingham's wireless or wi-fi broadband network has increased by more than 45 per cent since the network was launched by BT and Birmingham City Council in autumn last year.
This is fantastic. Before the launch of the BT network there wasn't much wifi in the city. Just a few enlightened cafes and the odd commercial pay-for node. The BT effort created blanket coverage and has been joined by others such as T-Mobile and O2. I'm assuming these figures only apply to BT but if we assume that wifi use was pretty small before a 45% increase on not much is still not much. Given the scale of the network and the rise of wifi-enabled devices being used over post-Christmas I'd be expecting 1,000%, 10,000% or more. Fail.
The impressive increase has propelled Birmingham ahead of other major cities - such as Newcastle and Liverpool - according to new figures released by BT's Wireless City programme today.
I'd be interested in knowing how minor cities are doing. a recent Wired article revealed that in the US municipal wifi was taking off in small towns and counties, not the big cities. What's happening in Nottingham, for example? And can we learn from it?
Birmingham is living up to its Second City status, with the use of outdoor, high-speed wi-fi second only to the City of Westminster in London, and the weekly number of users regularly running into the thousands.
Leaving aside London's notoriously poor wifi provision we're greeted with another fantastic statistic. "Running into the thousands" probably translates as "about a thousand", about 150 a day which considering the size of the city is pretty tragic. And I wonder how they measure this? I quite often find computer automatically connecting to the BT network to be greeted with their login page. Does that make me a user?
Coun Paul Tilsley, Birmingham City Council deputy leader, said: "These results are extremely impressive and proof that the people and businesses of Birmingham are increasingly using wireless technology as part of their everyday lives.
"Whether they are downloading work files when out of the office or staying in contact with friends on the move, we are seeing people begin to take full advantage of the flexibility that comes with high speed wireless broadband.
I have no idea how you came to that conclusion Paul. People tend to use mobile phones to keep in touch with friends on the move and "downloading work files" implies you've not used the internet much lately. But in short, it's clear if people are using wireless technology to access the internet it's not through the BT network. It's probably through 3g mobile networks on their phones or plugged into their laptops.
"Our unique, free birminghamfiz is really hitting the right button, providing all kinds of useful information so that anyone with a wi-fi enabled device in the city centre can keep up to date with the latest news, sport and weather, local amenities and services, events and attractions, even the locality of the nearest loo and closest car park - over 60 topics of on-the-move information completely free."
Okay, I need feedback here. If anyone uses birminghamfiz on a regular basis please let me know how and why in the comments here or by email (address on my blog). I don't want to write it off but I've never heard anyone say anything about it, let alone anything bad. It just seems to be completely off the radar.
[Aside: Having written this I tried using it to find out when my bus would arrive. After 10 minutes of faffing and digging through the PDFs on the TWM site to find the SMS code for my stop I finally got a message saying it'd be there in 2 minutes. Which it was. A very slim win.]
Also, "over 60 topics of on-the-move information completely free." 60 topics? Paul, you are spoiling us with your topics! Seriously, there's more to Birmingham than can be squeezed through the bottleneck of the Fiz. With the best will in the world the team charged with filtering the Internet into this service cannot hope to represent Birmingham in all it's glory. And all that information is out there, for free, on the Internet. There's probably a place for the Fiz and there's potential for it to be great but it just ain't there yet.
John Dovey, BT's West Midlands regional director, said, "Since the launch, we have seen the people of Birmingham really embrace the Wireless City network and begin to take full advantage of it many benefits."
If you replace "embrace the Wireless City network" with "embrace wifi and 3g" you might have a point but it's probably in spite of the launch, more to do with the adoption of new technology. We're playing catchup here.
"Birmingham's growing reputation as a wireless city will be a key element of the city's plans to establish itself as the leading European Digital City by 2010, spearheaded by the City Council's partnership, Digital Birmingham."
Which is why I'm banging on about this so much. It's crucial to any hopes of Birmingham becoming a Digital City however you define that nebulous term. But it needs to be done right.
The launch of extensive wireless broadband (Wi-Fi) coverage across the city centre, including New Street, Corporation Street, Victoria Square, Centenary Square and Colmore Row, has built on BT's existing Openzone network, and is enabling people to work, talk and play while on the move. It enables tourists, residents and benefits to enjoy all the leisure benefits of the internet they normally have at home or in the office.
I ask again, who are these people who are using this network? Okay, people who already have BT Openzone accounts and who have bundled city wifi onto their home broadband package, but tourists? For real?
Dr Norman Price, head of Birmingham Science City, said: "This is a great example of how innovation can work across the city and the region to improve quality of life.
"Birmingham Science City continues to promote innovation and technology across the region as well as business and knowledge base collaboration, to encourage ideas just like this which will continue to attract residents and businesses to the area and, in turn, increase the economic growth of the region.
"Just as Birmingham was pre-eminent in the use of steam over 200 years ago, it can now lead in the 'new steam' driving new technologies."
I'm 100% in agreement with you here but it's going to take a lot more than some pay-for wifi network to do it. We need some real innovation, investment and, frankly, bravery here. We need to to be looking at what we have and how to build on that. How about encouraging businesses to give away some of their Internet in return for advertising? There's a tool currently being used in California, Nocat, which can have wifi providers show a "splash page", usually an advert with links to their own site, which users have to click through before getting full free wifi access. Then there's Meraki, based out of San Franciso, which has many options. My idea here is to subsidise businesses in the city buying their routers which then create a mesh of free wifi across the city. This is the sort of project AWM could get behind.
This stuff is not simply Utopian freetard thinking. There are sound social and economic reasons why Birmingham should have open, unrestricted and free wireless internet coverage. If we bite the bullet and try something really innovative and exciting then Birmingham will become world renowned as a city where things happen. Right now, I'm sorry to say, we're doing it wrong.