Muni WiFi: escape the Dialup Dark Ages

A few years ago I approached Belfast City Council with the idea of my company putting a large chunk of cash into a Meraki WIFI mesh which would then provide free WiFi to Cathedral Quarter. Cathedral Quarter was and still is plagued by having historic cobbled streets which prevent the laying of new lines – but for my business it was an opportunity. If Belfast City Council would pay for two or three ADSL lines in some buildings, we would sink a heap of capital into the network hardware and handle all of the installations. What would we get out of it? A bit of advertising to the Creative Centre of Belfast. That’s all we wanted. The response we got back was that the area already had BTOpenZone, which, if you investigate is notable for it’s absence in the area.

Undeterred I believe that Belfast needs a free-to-access Municipal Wi-Fi network.

There are providers around but the cost and subscription burden of many providers (and lack of basic interoperability, never mind poor user interfaces for mobile travellers) makes the current WiFi subscription set up to be a very unsatisfactory experience for the average traveller.

Belfast allegedly attracted 800,000 people for the Tall Ships event recently.

“Around 800,000 people crowded to the city’s docks for the biggest event ever staged on the island of Ireland. This included 100,000 holiday-makers who visited the city especially for the event – and 250,000 people believed to have watched the magnificent Parade of Sail out of Belfast Lough.”

(Doing the maths: This means there were 200,000 per day. Which means 10,000 per hour or so during the four days the Tall Ships were here. I call bullshit but hey).

Either way – there were thousands of people present and over 1000 crew from those ships. Would a free WiFi service have been useful to them? Of course. Last time I travelled to the US, I had to pay nearly £1000 in data and voice roaming charges and my next trip will likely be as bad if not worse. It is essential to the Tourism economy in Northern Ireland that we have a tourist-friendly environment. Rather than the tourist not using voice or data services (or worse, spending hundreds of pounds on roaming data paid to their home carrier), we should be providing that service free of charge and permitting them to use Skype or other voice services to call home. We need to build Northern Ireland as a progressive traveller-friendly destination.

Recently in the news, San Francisco is pioneering with Solar-Powered WiFi bus stops.


By 2013, San Francisco is planning to construct 360 new Muni bus stops that’ll further the causes of both solar power and blanketed Wi-Fi at the same time.

and Toyota created a bit of a news story with their new Prius advertising campaign:


Toyota planted five 18-foot tall “solar flowers” in Boston’s Prudential Plaza and provided free Wi-Fi and electricity that was “partially powered” by the solar panels attached to the petals and stem.

Think of where the roaming charges go. This money is not being used to build the Northern Ireland economy, they’re not being used to upgrade our infrastructure, build our schools or assist local business. The money goes somewhere else.

So, lets unwire Belfast. Let’s break the stranglehold on communications held by the mobile carriers where they can charge £6 per megabyte downloaded or uploaded which, frankly, drags us back to the dialup dark ages.

0 thoughts on “Muni WiFi: escape the Dialup Dark Ages”

  1. Good points made here. San Francisco actually has free wifi on the Muni trains in the city centre. I don’t think solar power is much of an option here in Belfast, though! Perhaps we could harness rain power?

  2. It might be useful not only from reinvested spending by the tourist, but also from a promotional point of view. At a social event recently, there were a marked number of people taking pics and pushing them directly to FB and twitter. The folks doing it weren’t techs by any stretch of the imagination. The easier you make this type of interaction (cost being the major barrier) the more immediate social activity you’ll get online around an event. Essentially the crowd are generating promotional material and distributing it to their friends.

  3. This is a no-brainer. Matt, on two trips to belfast I spent $2,500 on data roaming charges. BTOpenZone is a joke. In teh Europa you can’t get a signal above the 4th floor.

    Free WiFi, perhaps with a splash screen that promotes Belfast, would be a WOW for us business travellers.

    I’m with y’all

  4. This was a very insightful article and I completely agree with Ciaran Bradley (thumbs up ciaran). I wonder what everyones thoughts are on the new government internet tax?

  5. Great idea – but who pays for the upkeep ? the installation ? support ? and where is the return opportunity ?

    The bus stop idea is good – but it all adds into the operators costs, increasing the cost of the service to the end user therefor not really free and infant being paid for by people that do not use the service.

    Free Wi-Fi is all well and good, and I have some clients it works for however there is generally no business strategy behind it.

    As a Wi-Fi person, I think that the future has to be that you pay one fee for ‘data’

    This fee would give you three things.

    1. DSL at home
    2. Use of Wi-Fi networks
    3. Use of 3g celltowers


  6. Russel,

    I am sorry but that’s just so “last years thinking”. Looking for an immediate cash return on providing public wifi access is completely ignoring the long term gain and less measurable benefits.
    As Matt and others clearly outline above the benefit for Belfast’ Cathedral Quarter would be by attracting more (and better) visitors. This will increase revenue for the area and Belfast in general. This revenue creates higher tax-revenue and there’s your direct return for a government spend.

    As for no business strategy behind free wifi? What’s the business strategy behind venue owners being told that they *have* to charge for access because it is mandatory under EU law?


  7. Hi Russell,
    As the government intend to give away home broadband, then I’m sure you see that there’s a disparity of the ‘one fee’ idea and there needs of the market.
    The benefits for a city infrastructure of Muni WiFi are easy to measure and there is room for proprietary/legacy WiFi installations which are able to differentiate themselves by providing a premium service.

    Additional network services such as VPNs, QoS (Quality of Service) and even just increased bandwidth become the differentiators of a WiFi ‘business’. Additional services such as a POTS exchange, online low-latency storage would also sweeten the deal.

  8. Evert,

    Who says people have the charge as its mandatory under EU law ? This is not the case.

    If a venue has complimentary Wi-Fi and it brings increased footfall, business and/or whatever there goal is then I am all for it but if they give complimentary Wi-Fi and parking and newspapers and still achieve less than before then there is no business strategy there at all.

    If the Government spend covers the running of it and it brings people into the area then that is good however if it is like most free wi-fi systems, slow, not managed and horrible to use then it is a waste of time.

    All good points Matt.

    And just to further point out Evert – there is a big difference between complying with the directive and free wi-fi, many companies that charge for Wi-Fi are in serious breach and currently under investigation in the UK. Have you read the directive ?

  9. Russell I have heard from three public venues serving paid wifi by the same provider that said provider has told them that they have to charge in order to stay compliant with EU regulations.

    Also, there is sufficient proof that the provision of free public wifi is giving businesses a competitive edge and has lead to increased visitor footfall and increased spend per visitor.
    That’s your business case right there. As for the point Matt makes, providing free wifi in a tourist amenity will attract more visitors with subsequent increased revenue for the area.

    Lastly; yes I have read the directive. The main issue is customer data retention which can be done perfectly without charging the user.

  10. Russell,

    I wish you all the luck with the network in Dingle but as you say: “however if it is like most free wi-fi systems, slow, not managed and horrible to use then it is a waste of time”.

    Venues that I heard this from were the D4 hotels and the new Travellodge in Limerick…


  11. Russell,

    Re. D4 hotels; that’s not the point. When asked why they (eventually) charge the answer was that their provider had told them they had to because of EU legislation. Whats more people I know where having dinner there and had to pay for access.

    Again I think the Dingle wifi network is a great idea and would love to hear more about it. Will certainly make people aware of it. Great innitiative.


  12. ‘D4 hotels; that’s not the point. When asked why they (eventually) charge the answer was that their provider had told them they had to because of EU legislation.’

    That didnt come from us !

    ‘Whats more people I know where having dinner there and had to pay for access.’

    Thats their policy – not ours !

    Will keep you posted on Dingle, we have inherited an existing system which needs to be overhauled, updated and expanded.

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