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Friday, 13 September, 2002, 15:12 GMT 16:12 UK
Wireless web gives villages free net
Presenter Kate Humble of BBC WebWise (1999) sits in a car using the internet with a laptop and mobile phone
Wi-fi tech frees surfers from cables

People could soon be sending e-mail from the hillsides, roadsides and rooftops of the south Wales valleys with the expansion of Europe's densest wireless internet network.

The Arwain project, which already covers Cardiff with an invisible internet backbone using radio waves, will be freely accessible in one of Wales' biggest digital black spots from October.

Rhondda valley
Small communities could benefit from wi-fi
Run by non-profit enthusiasts backed by the Welsh Development Agency, the initiative already gives free high-speed internet access to users in a 10sqkm catchment area in the city using five roof-mounted antennae. It means liberation from cumbersome cables - and free broadband.

Now BBC News Online can reveal the revolutionary "wi-fi" network will be widened to hundreds more residents and passers-by in a region many complain is stuck in the internet dark ages.

It is understood the Welsh Assembly's economic development minister, Andrew Davies, will front an official announcement on 8 October.

People within 3sqkm of both Taff's Well and Gwaelod-y-Garth will be covered by one mast each, with new antennae scheduled to go up at Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, Lisvane and Pen-y-Lan Hill later.

Invisible internet

Already, the expanded network - in testing phase - has attracted 50 users, many of whom chanced upon the signal using radio scanning software.

The communities will be able to browse the web, videoconference or send email from a park bench, a hilltop or a car, for example, at no cost - unfettered by annoying wires.

It could start to give south Wales companies the competitive communications edge they have been craving, helping the region to retain employers and pull Wales from the foot of the UK internet league.

Cardiff alone has more wireless broadband coverage than Denmark

Evan Jones, Arwain chairman
Just 31% of BT's local telephone exchanges are converted to the high-speed digital capacity of ADSL technology because the telecom giant believes conversion is not commercially viable.

Taking its lead from similar projects around the world, Arwain uses 802.11b (wi-fi) technology to send internet data along an unlicensed portion of the radio spectrum.

Users in Cardiff are hitting speeds of 10Mbps - about 10 times faster than ntl's fastest cable broadband package and enough to videoconference and watch high-quality web movies comfortably.

Network expansion

"This is something nice to give to the community," Arwain committee chairman Evan Jones told BBC News Online.

"It's a very good way of getting broadband to small but tightly packed communities.

But a greater proportion of metropolitan Cardiff is already covered than any other European city, Mr Jones added.

Man holding cables (Eyewire)
Cables could be a thing of the past
"Cardiff alone has more wireless broadband coverage than Denmark," he said.

"Nearly all of the centre and the bay are covered and we're building in some redundancy. A further 10sqkm will be on its way by Christmas."

Broadband advocates and activists frustrated by the slow roll-out of wired options are looking to wi-fi to plug the gap, even though 802.11b suffers from reduced reliability in heavy rain.

Growing interest

Use of wireless internet is mushrooming, with community groups in London, Edinburgh, Brighton and Sheffield launching similar civic projects and with individuals getting switched on to the wi-fi cult.

Another venture, E-fro, is using a 100,000 Welsh Assembly grant on a Bethesda, Gwynedd, trial which is a model for networking 600 more communities around Wales and another, Dyfinet, is operating in the Dyfi Valley.

Trials at the National Eisteddfod and Royal Welsh Show during the summer attracted fevered interest from rural community members including farmers, who could use wi-fi to track livestock at remote locations.

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See also:

11 Jul 02 | Wales
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18 Mar 02 | dot life
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