Ross's Rant: Expanding The Wide Area Network

A thought occurred to me recently that sometimes people need Internet access everywhere. Planes, trains and in the car. There are devices which can do this now, such as three’s MiFi device which converts a 3G signal to a portable wi-fi access point. The problem remains with these devices however is that they are only as good as the original signal being received from the 3G base station.

3G coverage here in the UK at least in my experience, has been a very patchy affair with distinct variations in signal strength, speed and reliability. A recent BBC survey has verified this despite what mobile broadband operators themselves may claim.

So what of the alternatives and the future? Well the routes for many years has been clear public long-range WiFi Provision as well as LTE (Long Term Evolution – 4G). Rollout of the associated infrastructure has been painfully slow; particularly when it comes to public access provision. Many see Internet access as a fundamental utility on an equal footing with your gas or electric. In austere times such as these however, there is little appetite for investment in costly infrastructure projects. This is particularly true of local, regional and national government.

This leaves investment in this area in the UK, firmly in the hands of existing telecommunications providers. Whilst many have already made a commitment to LTE, which promises dramatic improvements in speed to circa current home broadband levels, the fundamental signal issues are likely to remain. But what of wifi? Well the status quo is likely to prevail with a confusing array of services which have various conditions attached to their usage. Take O2′s partnership with The Cloud for example. As part of their service plans they offer free WiFi to customers, however what they don’t tell you, is that this is limited to the device that is attached to that plan. Little use if you own multiple devices.

There has been growing momentum in society to demonstrate that internet access is a fundamental right. That to deny people access to the sum of human knowledge (and a wide selection of YouTube cat videos) would disenfranchise people of opportunities within our society.

The various closed systems have created a confusing closed ecosystem with a myriad of options and services which have limited range to certain locations.  It’s a sorry state of affairs when the largest provider of WiFi in the UK is McDonald’s Restaurants.  There was hope briefly, however. Back in 2009 a public/private partnership in Swindon called Signal managed to do what hadn’t been done before in UK.  Make WiFi freely available to all in a major town with a sizable population. With Public sector cuts en masse since the election of the coalition Government which have trickled down to all levels; there is little appetite for huge infrastructure investment projects such as these.

So what of the future? The dream of free public internet access for all, is I'm sad to say, dead in the current climate. But dreams are just that, aspirations. What we aspire to may not be necessarily be a reality now, but if we keep up that aspiration then someone somehow will make it happen. When you find out who, let me know which Silicon Valley garage they’re in, I’d like to have a chat!

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