May 17, 2006 11:24 AM PDT

BT to create wireless cities

BT has begun rolling out wireless infrastructure in six U.K. cities as the first phase of a wider project, the company said on Wednesday.

The cities taking part so far are Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool and Westminster. Cardiff and Westminster represent extensions of the plan, as smaller Wi-Fi networks already exist in both places. Ultimately, BT plans to deliver high-speed Wi-Fi to 12 cities.

The first phase of the "12 Wireless Cities" plan is expected to be up and running by February 2007. BT hasn't yet said which other six cities will be involved.

BT will be working with Intel on the project. It claims that the wireless networks will support a "wide range of devices," including the forthcoming Wi-Fi version of its own Fusion handset, and a similar product currently being developed for corporate customers.

BT's group director of mobility, Steve Andrews, told delegates at The Wireless Event in London that the telecommunications company had been looking at the specific needs of councils around the U.K.

"With each of the cities it depends on the initial requirements and priorities of the cities," Andrews said. "If they (have) an intensive need for video-centric applications, we will need a different model than if they want to support workers with small devices."

Andrews later told ZDNet UK that this was a key point of differentiation from the approach taken by wireless operator The Cloud, which is rolling out blanket Wi-Fi in eight U.K. cities and three London boroughs.

Andrews stressed that the wireless deployment would initially be focused on areas identified by the relevant councils, rather than taking the form of blanket coverage.

He also said the rollout could aid public safety, and could support applications such as portable wireless cameras to combat crime and traffic congestion.

Councils are eager to use the opportunity to extend connectivity into previously deprived areas, Andrews said. "Within cities, we've seen that the focus of councils we've worked with is to be inclusive," he said. "We've seen deprived areas where investment in wireless technology has been a key feature in the proposals put to us by the councils. It cannot be seen as just available to those who can afford it."

He also said that BT had been "inundated" with requests from smaller rural and city councils to be included in the scheme, and that the company would be happy to work in partnership with them.

In the past, some traditional telecoms have taken a hostile approach to the creation of public wireless zones. In the U.S. city of Philadelphia, telecommunications companies failed to block a plan to create a massive, low-cost wireless hot spot. As Andrews pointed out, "You can never stop technology moving."

The project will use a combination of mesh networks and individual Wi-Fi hotspots.

Pricing details aren't yet available, but Andrews indicated that this would depend on the council and the services involved. "Some cities will want to co-invest," he said, "and there are certain elements where pricing could be on a per-service basis."

David Meyer of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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