A visit to Oxford City Council to discuss Net access

One of the things that most annoys me at the moment is the ridiculous high cost of public Net access. Despite BT's constant efforts to get people to sign up to its package, I still refuse to sign a 12-month contract and pay £20 a month just for those times that I'm out and about.

I want to connect to the Internet as and when. And you can do this in Oxford, where I live, in a fair few places these days – pubs, cafe, restaurants and so on. The problem is that it is exhorbitant. In pubs, most access is run by a company called The Cloud, and they have combined a games machine (called an ITbox) and wireless access point.

So if you want to know where to sit to get good reception, the answer is: as close to the loudest, most irritating noises in the pub. But the bigger problem is that it costs £6 an hour. £6 an hour! That's £4,500 a month.

This situation has created a vicious circle – companies won't reduce their prices because they say they don't have enough demand, and punters won't use them because they are too expensive.

So imagine my joy when The Cloud announced earlier this month that it was rolling out wireless access across nine cities in the UK, and Oxford was one of them. The plan is to install hotspots on street furniture like lampposts and mesh them together to offer city-wide Net access wherever you are.

The risks and downside

I love this idea. It is happening in cities right across the States. Most controversially in San Francisco where Google got fed up with companies try to squeeze as much money as they could from individuals and simply wired up the city for free (incredibly, companies are suing it for doing so. Only in the States).

This technology is the inevitable future. Ubiquitous Net access is going to become more and more important as people grow ever more used to accessing and interacting with the Internet. Many people – and I'm one of them – believe that at some point, Net access will become a utility like gas, electricity or water – something that the government is obliged to supply as a basic right.

It'll happen, because once an infrastructure is in – and there is plenty of financial impetus to make installation worthwhile – the cost of Net access is comparatively small.

My major concern though is that The Cloud will seek to extend its ridiculous pricing scheme in these roll-outs. Since the money will be shared with cash-strapped councils, the case for high prices will be a compelling one.

But high costs is blinkered thinking. Lower costs will see many, many more people use it, and in the medium-term and long-term prove more profitable. But more than that, it will open up society in ways previously thought fantastic.

Just one very small example: You've forgotten to pay your gas bill, and the Post Office is closed. With ubiquitous Net access, even if the Post Office is open, you won't have to turn around and walk back the other way, you can simply click on “Bills” on your mobile phone and pay it off while walking down the street. That reality is honestly no more than six months away.

I'm worried that The Cloud will use the carrot of money, and lack of understanding among almost everyone, to get councils to agree to preferential terms on long-term contracts. It would be a huge mistake and some cities could easily find themselves lagging behind the rest of the country, despite having signed up first.

City council

Anyway, all this will have to go through the City Council as it grants planning permission, and The Cloud will need dozens of bits of planning permission if it is to build a useful network.

So I checked out the Council's website, noted down their next meeting and decided to attend. It was tonight at 5pm.

I also checked out if the matter has already been up for consideration so searched through the minutes of previous meetings. Nothing. Although there was, I noted, a space at the beginning of each meeting for questions from members of the public.

I've been meaning to email my two councillors about this for a week but have been caught up, and so decided to simply turn up and say a short something, ask some questions.

I'd printed out a little statement to read. It was:


My name is Kieren McCarthy. I am a freelance journalist specialising in computers and the Internet.

Earlier this month, internet provider The Cloud announced plans to work with nine city councils in the UK to provide wireless internet coverage across an entire city centre. Oxford was named as one of those cities.

The Cloud said the first phase would be complete by this coming March when it will have installed several hundreds wireless hotspots on top of street furniture such as lampposts or bus shelters. This network will provide internet access for anyone with a laptop, mobile phone, PDA or games console that is wireless-enabled.

It will enable people to send emails, surf the Internet and make cheap phonecalls from anywhere within the city.

CEO of the company George Polk said at the time: “We are excited about the possibility of working with local authorities and councils to expand these networks so that together we can bring advanced wireless Internet access to as many people as possible…

“We are the ideal partner to work with to extend the range of services available in their cities without creating a monopoly which could shut out competition and innovative new services.”

Can I ask if there are discussions between Oxford City Council and The Cloud, and if so, at what stage they are, what has been discussed and agreed upon, and who has overall responsibility for the scheme.

Can I impress on councillors the need to discuss the best way forward with experts in this area – of which there are no shortage in Oxford.

This is a rapidly changing and expanding area and any decisions made now will have an enormous impact in just a few years.

Can I also stress that despite obvious short-term financial incentives, a lowest cost model for access to such a network would not only serve Oxford best but also place the city at the forefront of a new technological wave.


I never got the chance to say it. The Lord Mayor (one of my councillors) came in and whipped through the agenda. “Any apologies for absence, at all? No? Any declarations of interest? No. Any urgent business? No. Any addresses or petitions?”

At this point, sat at the back in the public gallery, I stuck up on my hand. But he didn't notice. “Okay… well we have the pink paper…” I kept my hand up and what I think was a clerk noticed it, and just stared at me as if I was confused. I coughed, and kept my hand up. The clerk looked at me like I was mad. And the meeting rolled on.

It would seem that you don't just turn up and ask questions. In fact you have to be “in accordance with Council Procedure Rule 9.03”. And that states that any address is limited to the business for which the meeting has been called. I'd only noticed this moments before I stuck my hand up, but I figured since this was a general council meeting, any business was fair game. If it wasn't, I'd beg their courtesy for two minutes.

Anyway, clearly public participation is not a regular event at city council meetings. There was only one other bloke in the public gallery and he was clearly a political wannabe because he kept speaking to one of the councillors and guffawing at the political in-jokes.

So the moment was well and truly gone, and I thought that rather than make fool of myself by interrupting, I'd leave it and grab the Lord Mayor aka Councillor Robert Price after the meeting.

The meeting

It's no real surprise that the public isn't fixated by council meetings as they are terribly dull. In fact, most government is incredibly dull. I've sat for hours in the Houses of Parliament despairing for my life, only kept alive by the odd bit of oratory. I've also sat through interminable United Nations meetings which – even though the subject they were covering fascinated me – were far from riveting.

The difference is that when big things are being discussed, quibbles over wording don't seem quite so pointless. On the agenda for this meeting was the final wording of the “Oxford Plan” which will “sets out the objectives and priorities for Oxford City Council from 2005 to 2008”.

Actually, having a three-year plan is unusual and a great step forward, we are told – normally they're only for one year. This was instead a “vision” for the future of Oxford. Which made it all the more depressing when all the items being argued over revolved around whether they become part of upcoming budgets.

The Lord Mayor was forced to point out three times during the course of discussions, that there was no need for things in the document to have to have a budgetary inclusion. I understand the simple and sad necessity to make sure these things aren't written in stone and so give  the council no room to maneouvre later on, but debating whether or not to say the council hopes to improves its parks because of a perceived fear of having to spending some money actually doing just that, is, frankly, depressingly petty.

Not quite as depressing or unintentionally ironic though as the Leader of the Council, Councillor Alex Hollingsworth, stating that: “Vision statements by their very nature don't exactly inspire.” Which is 180 degrees opposite to what most people would say was the purpose of a vision statement.

There was also the issue of riverbanks – something close to my heart as a main bit of riverbank very close to my house, and which is – or rather was – part of my morning running route, has been blocked off for over six months and isn't getting fixed because of arguments over who should pay and where the money's going to come from.

After some discussion, the council agrees to “work with partners on improving the river banks” under the proviso they don't have to spend any money.

After the meeting

Anyway, so the meeting finished in under an hour, and I went round to talk to Councillor Price, fully prepared to get into an argument with him.

As it turned out, he was very pleasant and courteous. I asked him about The Cloud and he told me the first he'd heard about it was on the BBC news a few days ago. But he would look into it and get back to me, where did I live? He knew Sadler Walk and asked the number, and said he'd find out and get back to me. And I'm certain he will.

While there I also asked him about the river bank, and he knew about it, said the council had accepted responsbility, that there was no money in the budget this year, but he would get it in next year's (presumably April) and work should start on it in the summer.

All of which was pleasantly surprising.

However, this does leave me with one big question: Is The Cloud lying, or at least overblowing, its plans and discussions with councils across the UK (was the press release and coverage no more than an awareness campaign and pitch in one?), or are the council staff in negotiations, without informing the councillors?

Either way, I really think Oxford – especially with the Oxford Internet Institute and Nominet on its doorstep – should be showing the way forward and I'm determined to help move this Net access plan along while ensuring that the Council – and the rest of us – don't get screwed along the way.

Stayed tuned.