Cash windfall to net wi-fi improvements for Capital

Kimberly Barr with her iPad in The Meadow

Kimberly Barr with her iPad in The Meadow

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A FREE wi-fi network extending across the city centre looks set to be introduced by 2015 after the Capital was selected for a huge cash windfall to improve coverage.

Central Edinburgh, parts of the New Town and the Meadows will benefit from free internet access for users of “smart” devices under a city council bid for a share of a £100 million UK Government fund.

Ten cities will earn a share of the Urban Broadband Fund – designed to enhance fixed and mobile broadband coverage – with Edinburgh guaranteed a sizeable chunk alongside London, Belfast and Cardiff.

The other six UK cities will then battle it out to win a share of the remaining money.

It is thought the Capital could net between £7m and £10m to install an open-access wireless zone that would span the city centre and beyond.

Other proposals in the bid include faster broadband for parts of the city, while it is understood approaches could be made to 3G and 4G mobile phone companies to improve the city’s often unreliable coverage.

Councillor Cameron Rose, who has seen the proposal put to Westminster, said increased connectivity would enable the city to compete internationally on the IT stage, make life easier for tourists and open up opportunities for residents.

“There is no question this will be of great benefit to the city’s economy, visitors and Edinburgh people,” he said.

“It would see routes through the Meadows, and the areas adjacent to them, enabled for free public wi-fi usage.

“The Edinburgh proposal would include the UK Government grant for the technical infrastructure and provide the possibility of further partnerships with communications companies to extend coverage, including 3G and 4G facilities.

“Edinburgh has one of the best average maximum broadband speeds in the UK, though its mobile phone [3G] coverage is amongst the poorest of cities in the UK.”

The UK Government investment will be used to install the infrastructure to facilitate improved wi-fi access, while the council is willing to stump up £1.9m over three years to maintain the network.

Graham Birse, director of policy at Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, said: “Most progressive cities say we provide high-quality streaming across our city centre, so if we are serious about attracting investment then we need the infrastructure that goes with that.

“We need to think of that as we do bridges or tram projects, road and rail, but it’s as much about wireless connectivity as it is about other forms of infrastructure.”

Finance convener Cllr Phil Wheeler said: “Our proposal focuses on driving economic growth and digital participation by investing in wireless access in the city centre and other key locations, as well as improvements to broadband connectivity and speeds.”

The exact cash share is set to be announced on March 21.