Will West Hampstead get free WiFi?

Last Wednesday, Camden council approved recommendations for the provision of free wireless “within the borders of the London Borough of Camden in areas of the borough that commercially viable as they have a high ‘footfall'”. What does that actually mean and would it include West Hampstead?

It’s far from clear exactly what “high footfall” means. After all, Camden includes Kings Cross, Camden Lock, and even parts of Covent Garden. Relative to that, even the interchange between West Hampstead’s stations at rush hour would be considered “sleepy”.

So are we going to get free WiFi or not? Camden’s finance chief, Theo Blackwell, has tweeted saying “Wifi could cover most of the borough”. Provision requires the use of exisiting council infrastructure, which is a posh way of saying “lampposts”. In response to a direct question as to whether West End Lane would be included, he replied “Wifi attached to street furniture so where people and streetlights, there should be coverage.”

The main reason for the lack of a straight answer is that this will be a commercial concession put out to tender. This is not a public-sector scheme to deliver universal WiFi, it’s a money raising exercise that brings some public benefits. Coverage will depend on what is economically viable for the provider. Camden intends to derive income from this (a good way to raise cash and provide a public service) and incur zero expenditure. We shall have to hope that bidders recognise the commercial benefits of giving access to our reasonably affluent neighbourhood, even if we lack the volume of pedestrians of Covent Garden.

The language used in the report (shown below with key passages highlighted) that Cabinet voted on does strongly imply that there will be a core network at first and then it says “It is expected this network will be further extended over time to support the priorities as set out in the Camden Plan.” 

There is also talk of “inter-borough collaboration” although the details seem a bit sketchy at the moment. It says, “The concession will be established in a way to permit other London Boroughs to participate in the arrangements to enable wireless services to be provided across Borough boundaries”. Those living on the Brent borders may wonder what likelihood there is of Brent council embracing this idea. Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea boroughs have already collaborated to award a concession. Although the document states that Camden is working with other London boroughs on joint procurement, it doesn’t specify which ones unfortunately.

The contract is expected to be awarded in February 2013.

What do you think? Are we well served already by free WiFi in coffee shops and bars and in the library. It’s unlikely that any free network would enable heavy home use – it’s intended for the public realm, so you can instagram a police horse, or send a quick e-mail from the street without using the slower 3G networks (and any data allowance). So do we even need it? Or would omitting NW London’s twitter capital be a horrendous oversight?

Camden Cabinet Meeting July 18 2012 Notes on Wireless Provision