Signal, the free wifi being made available across the whole of Swindon Borough in 2010, was switched on in Highworth, the first location to go live, by Caroline Spelman, shadow minister for communities and local government, writes Juliet Platt.
Signal is the brain-child of Swindon businessman Rikki Hunt, and it is being delivered via a commercial consortium called Digital City UK, which including Swindon Borough Council and technical company aQovia. It will provide every user with 2 hours of free internet access per day, with incremental charges for extra usage.
Peter Greenhalgh, lead cabinet member for sustainability at Swindon Borough Council said “the council has made a commercial loan to this venture to help get it started, and we expect it to be paid back in full in about 18 months. As a stakeholder in the business, the council will also receive a 35% share of the revenue as the scheme is rolled out across other boroughs in the UK.”
Right, Caroline Spelman presses the go button to launch Signal with council leader Rod Bluh and Ricki Hunt
The partnership between public and private sector is unique, and something that Rikki Hunt has been keen to establish since becoming Chairman of the Swindon Strategic Economic Partnership in 2006. “It has already been commented in Parliament that more councils should be entering into this way of working with the private sector,” said Peter Greenhalgh.
Rod Bluh, leader of the council, said “the cultural divide between the public and private sector is closing, and the Signal offering just goes to show what can be delivered when working as a team. Connecting rural communities is a big issue for the south west, and what we are achieving in Swindon is a strong indication of the power of local government.”
Caroline Spelman was very excited to be invited to open the network for Highworth. “This is a fantastic example of localism at work, and what Swindon has done with wi-fi is showing central government new and different ways of meeting fresh demands.”
“This not just about connectivity and getting online, “said Rikki. “Although it will be good to enable those in Swindon who aren’t yet online to benefit from the financial savings and convenience of the internet, the real value in making this technology available to all is in the applications that we’ll be launching in January. Mobile phone companies sell connectivity, but we’re going the next step towards social inclusion by providing more reasons to get connected in the first place.”
Digital City UK have partnered with technology providers specialising in various internet-based services and applications, such as:
• home-based health information helping patients with chronic diseases manage their condition;
• social care systems enabling families of elderly relatives to be alerted in emergencies;
• energy consumption monitoring;
• home security;
• data back-up solutions for businesses;
• free telephone calls within the Swindon Borough.
The Signal launch has attracted international attention, particularly in India, Australia and Malaysia. A news crew from Russian TV station NTV turned up in Highworth for the switch on. Russian television journalist Evgeny Ksenzenko, pictured right with Juliet Platt, said “this is a good application of wifi, and a good social and business model which is very interesting.”
Year 11 pupils from Highworth Warneford school came along to the launch and logged onto the network straightaway. “It’s really easy to use, and we got online immediately,” said pupil Vicky Walsh.
“The biggest test will be when 2,000 people in Highworth are all trying to use this at the same time,” said pupil Ryan Acres, casting a more critical eye over the proceedings.
He and Vicky are pictured with Caroline Spelman and colleagues Nick Gibson, Matt Greenwood
Digital City UK are looking for feedback about the service between now and 15 January 2010. “There will be a period of adjustment, shifting the equipment around to optimize reception, and assessing feedback from the people of Highworth,” said Rikki.