By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News
More and more cities are cutting their wires and going wireless.
Norwich rolled out UK's first free network
But as councils offer public wi-fi, questions are being asked about how much citizens will use them and how sustainable they are.
City-wide wi-fi is the obvious next step from wi-fi hotspots, bringing them out of cafes and hotel lobbies to provide ubiquitous coverage in a town.
But some analysts claim that few citizens are using public wi-fi while other call for more cautious rollouts.
Companies such as BT and The Cloud are partnering with local governments in the UK to build city-wide wireless networks offering councils enhancements to public services and giving citizens the chance to connect to the web from wi-fi enabled devices.
But such partnerships create tensions between the private firms that roll them out and the councils that want to leverage the maximum benefit from them.
Wi-fi networks could be an excellent way of bridging the digital divide, reaching out to the socially excluded and offering those that remain unconnected entry into the digital world.
Because of this, there is a keen political motivation for local governments to offer networks to citizens for free.
Norfolk County Council launched the UK's first free public wi-fi service last summer and is pleased with take-up so far. Mobile workers and students are the most frequent users of the service.
It is getting 30,000 connections each month and is now looking at ways to extend the pilot service - due to end in spring 2008 - and keep it free or nearly-free. To this end it is in talks with local universities and commercial bodies.
Manchester, the runner-up in a nationwide competition to find ways of using technology to bridge the digital divide, is determined to go ahead with the plans it submitted to the competition to roll out a free city-wide network.
Its network would be the largest in the UK and the leader of the council, Sir Richard Leese, envisages it will eventually have speeds of up to 100mbps (megabits per second), although he acknowledges that this may need to move to a paid model.
He believes that one of the primary uses of a wi-fi network would be to reach out to communities that do not currently have access.
Manchester is currently looking for ways to fund the network and he is hoping it can come from a variety of sources, including the council itself, its technology partner Microsoft and central government.
Jon Lane, director of BT's wireless cities projects believes it is unrealistic to expect wi-fi networks to be free.
"There has been a change in councils' mindsets in the last 12 months from a view that it should be free for everyone to recognition that it isn't that simple," he said.
"Our investment in each city is in excess of a million pounds. This is a non-trivial investment. You can put in hotspots on a shoestring but that is not sustainable," he said.
BT has several charging models for the services it has rolled out in cities such as Westminster, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Liverpool. People can either pay monthly or for an hour or a day's worth of usage. Those using BT's broadband service at home can have wi-fi bundled in with fixed line services.
Mr Lane described the take-up of BT's wi-fi services as "in line with expectations" and promised new applications, such as a service to allow people to upload photos to digital storage.
But according to Jupiter Research, currently only 6% of Europeans have used a public wi-fi network. Barriers include cost as well as the services available, it said.
In the US, more than 150 cities have some form of municipal wi-fi network, with hundreds of others in the pipeline.
Corpus Christi in Texas was one of the pioneers and provides an interesting case study to the tensions between free and paid for wireless networks.
The city spent 18 months and $7.1m (£3.5m) on its 147-square mile wi-fi network, which includes 1,300 access points. Initially it offered the service for free but in March the network was bought by EarthLink which started charging for access.
According to Ron Sege, the chief executive of US-based Tropos Networks, when wi-fi was first rolled out in the US it was seen as a cheap alternative to fixed line broadband.
"The expectations of wi-fi as a replacement to DSL have not been met," he said.
He thinks that networks in the US were rolled out too quickly and he has some advice for councils in the UK planning similar installations.
"Make sure you understand what it can do and what it can't. It is important to first serve unmet needs and then move on to mainstream applications," he said.
Bharat Jain of the Nomad Wireless Forum, an organisation set up to advise UK councils on getting the most out of wi-fi, echoes his views.
"There are a number of local authorities implementing networks but they don't necessarily know why they are doing it," he said.
For him, wi-fi must sit alongside cellular and fixed line solutions to form just one strand of councils' connectivity plans.
He also thinks there are ways of making it available for free to those who need it most.
"It may be that local authorities can negotiate to have it free for the bottom 10% of the population," he said.
There are obvious benefits for council services in employing a wireless network.
Public safety can be improved with wireless CCTV cameras which can quickly be deployed to crime hotspots.
Wi-fi can also play a role in monitoring parking, traffic flow management as well as providing handheld devices for council workers in the field such as planning officers and street wardens.
In the US, the emergency services are finding life-saving applications for wi-fi.
Wireless CCTV cameras can be deployed quickly
In Tucson in Arizona, a network set up by Tropos Networks is providing mobile broadband to ambulances to give those onboard vital real-time contact with emergency rooms.
In Corpus Christi, the authorities introduced an automated meter reading system after an employee was mauled by a pit-bull terrier.
In New Orleans, wi-fi provided essential net access to citizens when other systems failed following the disastrous Hurricane Katrina.
In the US companies are also finding innovative ways of offering the sought-after free services. Microsoft offers an ad-supported wi-fi network to the citizens of Portland, Oregon while rival Google supplies a similar thing in San Francisco.
While Mr Jain is not convinced a similar model would provide all the answers in the UK he is sure that, with the right price-tag, people will use public wi-fi.
"People will take it up, they just don't want to be paying a fiver an hour," he said.