This is the 2018 goal for Sheffield City Council. The first step towards this has been taken in January, with the Cabinet giving the green light to plans for city-wide free public Wi-Fi to be available by the end of this year.
The initiative, led by the Sheffield Business Improvement District (BID), is following in the footsteps of other cities in the UK, such as York, Manchester and Leeds, in offering the public free internet access across the city centre.
However, these cities were able to take advantage of the BDUK Super Connected Cities Scheme, which is no longer available. This means that Sheffield will need to find an internet provider of its own to give the city free internet access.
The proposed area that the Wi-Fi will be available is across the Sheffield BID area, which is anything inside the ring road surrounding the city centre. This will also include several public buildings, such as the Winter Garden.
As far as funding for this project is concerned, Sheffield City Council is in a unique position as it has the capacity to exploit the large number of city wide street assets it possesses.
These assets (lampposts, lights, etc.) can be used in a swap deal with a potential internet provider, exchanging the use of these assets as advertising space for free public Wi-Fi.
There were discussions as to whether the council should self-fund a project to offer free public Wi-Fi, however this was rejected in favour of an approach that did not require the council to invest any funds that could be spent elsewhere.
With the agreement of the council being made, the wheels are in motion for free public Wi-Fi to be in place by December of this year, with July being the scheduled time for an internet provider to be chosen. The requirements the internet provider must meet to be considered are strict, but for good reason.
The council is proposing to offer a ten-year contract to the chosen provider, if they can offer a high-quality customer experience for access, registration and use and be free of charge to the user, and to the council.
The provider must also be able to offer good city centre coverage, with strong performance that keeps pace with technology, and be a reliable communications platform that can be used by the BID and others to increase footfall in the city and to help local businesses thrive and grow.
This idea complements Sheffield’s broader objectives of becoming one of the best-connected cities in the country, making the city an attractive location to run a business in.
Economically speaking, by providing free public Wi-Fi across the city centre, local businesses will feel a benefit with the city becoming more vibrant and attractive to shoppers, while encouraging more visitors, residents and employees to spend more time in the city.
It also brings a multitude of social benefits to the city, such as improved access to public services which are increasingly available online and a reduction in isolation, as access to the Internet can help improve communication and social engagement.
This will help Sheffield businesses as it will allow them to connect and interact with the local community within the city centre.
However, there are still a few concerns with the idea of free public Wi-Fi being rolled out in the city centre. ‘Sheffield.Digital’, the association for businesses and individuals involved in Sheffield’s digital industries, have offered support to the council with the decision to give this scheme the go ahead, but have penned an open letter identifying areas of concern.
The crux of these focus on whether the internet provider will be able to offer what is required for the city, whether the internet will be strong enough or fast enough to do everything it needs to do, or whether it will be just for simply checking emails and accessing social media.
By over-promising or failing to deliver, it could cause quite the problem and result in the plan being scrapped all together.
This is why the council has given themselves the whole year to undertake this project, as it is a vital one in pushing Sheffield towards becoming one of the digital powerhouses of the UK.
Every precaution will need to be taken to future proof the plan, and ensure that Sheffield will not be left behind as technology continues to develop and new users begin to emerge.