The first two areas of Leeds city centre to benefit from council-sponsored free Wi-Fi have been announced. A service run by Virgin Media will be available in Briggate by the end of next month and in Millennium Square by the end of March 2013, according to a council report.
Using ‘small-cells‘ installed on street lamps rented from the council, Virgin Media (VM) will also be trialling 3G and 4G services in the city centre in the early part of next year ahead of a commercial roll-out in the second half of 2013.
The “city wireless” project is part of a broader plan jointly developed by Leeds and Bradford councils to provide ultra-fast broadband to homes and businesses and along key transport corridors into and between the two cities.
The joint plan was allocated £14.4m from the government’s £114m Urban Broadband Fund in September this year.
Further expansion depends on …
It has never been clear how far the free Wi-Fi element of the plan would extend in Leeds city centre. It seems now that expansion will depend on how the service goes down at the first two sites … and on Virgin Media making some money from the 3G and 4G subscription services.
“There are arrangements under the contract to deploy further Wi-Fi services in the city centre only, but this is dependent on the commercial success of the business model (which includes the 3G/4G elements), success of the early sites and the council’s appetite to deploy to other locations,” the report says.
“The approach will be to deploy and prioritise free Wi-Fi in the civic areas where people will be safe to use the facility rather than on the busy streets where there are potential road safety concerns,” it adds.
Virgin Media won the six-year contract to deliver the service (with Wi-Fi partner Global Reach) after a “competitive dialogue” procurement process to provide “metro wireless” services for both Leeds and Bradford city centres.
So, though the report doesn’t spell it out, it looks like Bradford city centre will be getting the same Virgin Media/Global Reach service.
“Bridge the digital divide”
“The council will be heavily involved in the design of the portal and will have choice about branding and promoting council services on the ‘home page’ as required,” the report says.
Who’s going to benefit from the free service – which will be owned, managed and supported by Virgin? In short, the council says, local people – especially those who can’t afford to pay … and shops.
“Free Wi-Fi services strategically deployed in civic areas of the city where people congregate will be good for our citizens and visitors, will help bridge the ‘digital divide’ and provide internet access to those who cannot afford to pay for access,” the report says. “This service will also be good for the cities (sic) retail outlets by helping to increase dwell times and footfalls.”
Under the contract, Virgin Media gets exclusive access to the street lamps in the city centre to deploy Wi-Fi, 3G, 4G and “similar future services” for the next six years as long as it meets “certain commercial criteria”.
As far as the 3G and 4G subscription services are concerned, “VM will wholesale this capability on to the mobile network operator community”, the report says.