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23 February 2006Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Municipal why fi?
Will Islington Council's wireless internet connections really 'promote social inclusion'?

by Grace Chua

If you wandered around Islington's bustling Upper Street in London, with its rows of shops, pubs and cafes, you might never notice the wireless access points placed discreetly along sidewalks. In April 2005, Islington Council quietly installed the technology to turn Upper Street into the 'Technology Mile', London's biggest zone of free wireless internet access. But nearly a year later, does the technology work, and has it done what it was supposed to - bridge the so-called 'digital divide' and provide internet access for all?

To find out, I toted my two-year-old, wireless-enabled laptop up and down the street hunting for a wireless network signal. At the Tinderbox cafe, near Angel tube station, there was a weak signal that was quickly replaced by the cafe's own network, where customers could pay £1 for 20 minutes of wireless internet access. In a smaller cafe there was no reception at all, while a nearby pub offered a faint signal that flickered in and out of existence. The signal is there, but it is stronger on the street than indoors where people might be more likely to use a laptop or a PDA. 'Since the network went live in April, we are registering an average of 500 connections to the internet per week, which clearly reflects the value the service is giving to the community', said Islington councillor Terry Stacy in a press release. The service is meant to benefit local residents and businesses (1).

Yet residents don't seem to have noticed. All but one of the locals I spoke to on Upper Street knew nothing of the Technology Mile, but said they would be eager to use it now that they had heard about it. Bruno, 32, said he had used the wireless coverage a few times to send music and messages on his mobile phone. But two women working in the designer clothing shop Stone said they had never heard about the wi-fi zone, and that the store already had broadband internet. James, a photographer, was sitting in a cafe emailing from his mobile phone. 'This is my office', he told me, showing me the phone, on which he was using a subscription email service from his mobile provider. When I told him about the Technology Mile, he was delighted that he could access the internet directly just standing on the pavement. But why is the service being kept so quiet, James asks me. A later enquiry to Islington Council yielded no reply.

According to the Islington Council press release, the free municipal wi-fi is supposed to 'promote social inclusion' and offer internet access to the disadvantaged (2). But does the Technology Mile provide equal access for all? Nearby households are comfortably middle-class and are likely to have broadband internet already. Those who could use access to technology and education are the elderly and poorer communities in the areas, further north of Islington.

Some are sceptical of the claim to boost technological equality. Adam, who lives near Bethnal Green, said: 'It's a good idea to give everyone in the community a chance to participate, but right now [the Technology Mile] is good for publicity, making Islington attractive to businesses and tourists. If I were with the council I'd want to see them spend money on education and social welfare.'

Wireless signals need to be stronger
Upper Street is a bustling shopping locale full of bars, restaurants, cafés and clothing stores. The notion of people using wi-fi when bar-hopping seems odd. Internet use here isn't really a social activity bringing a community together, but more of a convenience - the high-tech equivalent of a phone book in which you can look up street maps and minicab numbers.

For taxpayers to be willing to support the initiative, the council should prove a definite benefit to the community. To begin with, the technology needs to be improved - wireless signals need to be stronger. Municipal wi-fi is not about to replace commercial broadband services and internet cafes yet. If municipal wi-fi can be rolled out to disadvantaged areas of the community to provide education and access, that's wonderful - but it isn't a replacement for other social and family services. At the moment, municipal wireless internet is a convenient service for some - but it's not yet living up to its potential.

Grace Chua is studying in America, and has worked as an intern at spiked.

(1) Islington council press release, 'Islington goes the extra 1.3 mile', 12 Oct 2005

(2) Islington council press release, 'Islington goes the extra 1.3 mile', 12 Oct 2005

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