- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2007

LONDON — The City of London, the British capital’s financial “Square Mile,” became one of the biggest wireless hot spots in the world yesterday when Europe’s most advanced outdoor Wi-Fi network was switched on.

The new network means that more than 350,000 Londoners — the vast majority of them in the business of stocks, bonds, banking and the like — and millions of visitors now have broadband-speed Internet on demand and on the move via their laptop computers, BlackBerrys, cell phones and media players.

The Square Mile’s system utilizes a new “mesh” technology in which radio signals are automatically relayed among 127 Wi-Fi “nodes” that dangle from lampposts, closed-circuit television poles and even street signs, so that communications are uninterrupted across what is billed as the world’s leading financial and business center.

For nearly a year, the district’s local government and the Cloud information-technology firm that developed the communications network have been testing the system that the company calls “a global benchmark for cities and metro Wi-Fi.”

The greater metropolitan London area has an estimated 2,000 or more conventional Internet hot spots, most of them covering major hotels and hundreds of coffee shops. But these require users to log in every time.

The key to the hoped-for success of the City of London’s network is that its users will have to log in only once and that their communications should go unbroken — no matter where they are within the net or what they are doing.

The Square Mile “is the biggest hot spot of its kind in Europe as far as we know,” Niall Murphy, chief strategy officer for the Cloud, told reporters, “and it is unique, as users keep their signal wherever they are.”

“I’ve used the service in a taxi driving through the City, and I’ve managed to keep talking,” he said.

The service is free for a one-month trial period, and after that it will cost each user about $23.95 a month — a figure unlikely to daunt folks in the Square Mile, where six-figure salaries and often seven-figure bonuses hardly raise an eyebrow.

“We feel it is important to provide this technology to maintain our position as the world’s leading financial center,” said Michael Snyder, policy committee chairman for the City of London, which provides local government services for the Square Mile and its financial wizards.

The new system, he said, means that “City workers and visitors will be able to use wireless broadband to work more efficiently, staying in touch with their office via hand-held devices while on the move.”

Mr. Murphy of the Cloud company, which operates 7,000 smaller Internet hot spots across Britain, Germany and Sweden, said the City of London’s network is a leading example of the “metro Wi-Fi networks [that] are changing the faces of towns and cities around the world for both public-access and public-sector applications.”

Derek Wyatt, a member of Britain’s Parliament, said he was impressed by the network but worried that it would allow users to “make cheap phone calls, surf the Internet … and even play games over the Internet instead of a mobile phone network.”

The Cloud’s management says that it has detected a “growing demand for citywide Wi-Fi networks” and that it was “actively engaged” in negotiations with more than 30 cities to install them across Europe during the next two years.

The company estimated that by next year, more than 160 million Wi-Fi-enabled devices will be operating in Western Europe alone.

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