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Birmingham City Centre to receive free Wi-Fi

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    Acorn Newsbot Junior Member

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    Following on from the success of the roll-out of Wi-Fi on the London Underground last year, Virgin Media Business has won another contract to roll out the wireless networking technology across Birmingham city centre. The service is to be used by visitors and residents alike, with the intention of boosting economic growth and making Internet access available to people who might otherwise be excluded.

    The roll out will see lamp-posts and CCTV columns fitted with mobile broadband access points to provide the Wi-Fi coverage. The access points will also be used to boost 3G and 4G mobile network capacity, making Birmingham one of the most “connected” cities in the world.

    Commenting on the proposals, Birmingham city councillor James McKay said,
    “Offering free wifi in the city centre will help us bridge the digital divide, enabling more people to get online, while supporting economic growth and inward investment as Birmingham becomes a better place to do business. By boosting 3G and 4G capacity in known areas of demand, this scheme would also lay technological foundations for the city for many years to come, underpinning our smart city aspirations.”

    Deployment of the first public access points will begin in September, covering Victoria Square, New Street, High Street, St Philip’s Cathedral, Moor Street and the plaza outside Birmingham library. Eventually, the hope is to provide blanket coverage for the major metropolitan sections of the city centre. The project falls under the “Super Connected Cities” plans put forward by the Government in March.

    Not just Birmingham
    The Birmingham city project comes hot on the heels of another Wi-Fi enablement project announced this week that will see all of ScotRail’s trains upgraded to offer wireless Internet access to passengers. As yet, the Scottish project has yet to declare whether access will be free, or if there will be an access charge for those who wish to use it. Many of the train operators in England already provide on-board Internet access, but access is restricted for use by First Class travellers only.

    These newly announced projects are the latest in a long line intended to extend Wi-Fi coverage to more of the UK’s population. The major shopping areas of London were Wi-Fi enabled as part of the London 2012 Olympic Games preparations, for instance. BT also offers a comprehensive nationwide Wi-Fi network, using a combination of spare network capacity on the HomeHubs routers issued to their customers, and dedicated access points in well-populated areas.

    Not all public Wi-Fi is the same
    Public Wi-Fi hotspots operate in different ways depending on the provider. The London Underground service was free to all during 2012, but changed to a paid service at the beginning of the year. Access remains free for customers of the major mobile networks (Vodafone, O2, Orange and T-Mobile), but other users must sign up for a time limited “pass” to gain access.

    BT Wi-Fi is free to all their Broadband customers, but requires other users to buy pre-pay vouchers to gain access. Broadband customers can also access Wi-Fi networks previously provided by operators “Openzone” and “Fon”, who were acquired by BT to expand their own network.

    The Birmingham city project is quite exceptional, in that access is completely free and users can download as much data as they like. The Virgin rollout is also designed to test a new mobile technology, which routes mobile telephone calls over Broadband when the mobile networks are overloaded. The connections are expected to be sufficiently powerful to support video streaming and online gaming, suggesting that unlike other “free” Wi-Fi services, Birmingham’s will be suitable for more than simple web browsing and email.

    Public Wi-Fi and security
    Public Wi-Fi is undoubtedly useful, but there are risks associated with the technology. There always remains a small possibility that public Wi-Fi networks can be compromised by hackers, or that users may be tricked into connecting to a fake access point.

    Public Wi-Fi network traffic is not usually encrypted, so anything passing between your device and the Internet can, in theory, be captured and stolen. Personal email, web-surfing data and unencrypted passwords are all at risk when using public networks. Fortunately, connections encrypted with SSL technologies, such as those employed by your online bank, are less susceptible to electronic eavesdropping. However, caution should always be exercised when using public Wi-Fi hotspots.

    Useful resources about using public Wi-Fi safely
    Knowthenet provides a number of useful tips on identifying fake access points and protecting yourself when using public Wi-Fi in this guide.

    BT has written a useful guide for their customers with network-specific tips on staying safe when using their Wi-Fi service:

    Virgin Media has a number of FAQs about Wi-Fi network security on the London Underground, including the importance of using antivirus and security software on your device:

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