This article was published on the City A.M. website on 4 January 2017 as part of Invest Edinburgh Talk.
It’s the quintessential 21st Century dilemma: you’ve just spotted Leonardo DiCaprio outside an Edinburgh café and snapped the best celebrity selfie of your life. But can you risk a Facebook Live broadcast? Just how much mobile data do you have left?
Then you remember you’re in Scotland’s capital where, since the end of November 2016, you’ve been able to enjoy free public WiFi across the city centre.
It’s the latest digital infrastructure improvement to be completed as Edinburgh cements its position as the UK’s leading gigabit city. Just as well. Today’s generation of digital natives has little experience of a world without YouTube.
In its latest Mobility Report, Ericsson forecasts an explosion in wireless data consumption in the next five years. Driven largely by smartphone usage, faster networks and video’s growing dominance – with live streaming available through social media channels – Ericsson predicts a ten-fold increase in data usage by 2021.
Meeting that demand, whether from business, residents or visitors, will be essential to the future vitality of any forward-looking, ambitious city.
YouGov research in 2016 found that nearly 43% of UK consumers report frustration at the lack of free, public WiFi. One in four would feel more inclined to stay longer in a town or city centre, if they had access to free WiFi."
UK’s largest gigabit city
The installation of a 150km fibre optic network across Scotland’s capital, the result of collaboration between CityFibre and local provider Commsworld, has established Edinburgh as the UK’s largest Gigabit City. But unlike other gigabit networks, Edinburgh’s ultra-fast fibre optic infrastructure criss-crosses the whole city.
“The resulting infrastructure is a real coup for businesses and services,” said James McClafferty, CityFibre’s head of regional development in Scotland.
"With the fibre network now in place, we're seeing the number of interested businesses increase rapidly, attracted by potential speeds of anywhere up to 40Gbps," adds Andy Arkle, commercial director, Commsworld.
Businesses across the city are already benefiting from the increased network capacity, among them Edinburgh’s theatres.
“We are now able to provide an outstanding service to more than 800 attendees, each using multiple devices,” says Iain Ross, director of finance and HR at The Festival and King’s Theatres.
Today’s city-wide fibre network began life in 2014 as a more humble project. The City of Edinburgh Council identified an opportunity to expand that plan, connecting school, library and Council-run sites to the new fibre network.
The infrastructure not only had to be fit for purpose but flexible, as Ritchie Somerville, Innovation and Futures Manager at The City of Edinburgh Council explains. “We wanted a network that could meet future needs, enabling staff to be more mobile and paving the way for more online services. Edinburgh has always been at the vanguard of digital learning across our schools estate and we wanted to support that journey.”
We believe that by the end of 2016, Edinburgh will have the fastest school estate in the UK. That additional connectivity gives us the foundation upon which we can build the digital classroom of the future.”Ritchie Somerville, innovation and futures manager, City of Edinburgh Council
As a service user, the Council is seeking to use the new network to unlock a range of social improvements, including increased access to ultra-fast broadband for those on lower incomes, as well as upgrading CCTV networks around the city.
Free public WiFi
For visitors and residents alike, the installation of the UK’s largest Gigabit network has also paved the way for the introduction of free public WiFi across the city centre.
A 10-year WiFi concession, agreed with intechnologyWiFi in early 2016, has delivered blanket coverage across the city centre since the end of November.
By providing access to Council-owned street furniture, the partnership has also enabled intechnologyWiFi to boost existing 4G mobile capacity and lay the groundwork for the next generation of 5G mobile data.
The launch of the WiFi network is the final piece in the Council’s Connected Capital Programme, designed to make Edinburgh one of the best-connected cities in Britain. Residents and visitors are already benefitting from free WiFi on public transport, as well as WiFi hotspots across 70 public buildings.
Mr DiCaprio might have departed Edinburgh, but fibre optic gigabit capacity and free WiFi are here to stay. The Titanic struggle between mobile data allowance and user demand is settled, leaving visitors and residents alike feeling on top of the world.