Written in a coffee shop in Norwich and despatched to silicon.com via the UK’s first free municipal wi-fi network. But the email and contents then became locked into a downed server and I had to resend (just to make sure) three days later. Ho hum, it all works for the vast majority of the time!

The City of Norwich is located in the northeastern corner of East Anglia and is pretty well isolated by a dire road network, poor rail services and a dinky regional airport providing a few business flights. It is therefore somewhat ironic that the city fathers of this far-flung community should be the first in the UK to announce the installation of a free municipal wi-fi network. This has, like all other ‘muninets’, been installed to encourage and ease business growth and operations, and thereby create greater economic activity.

So far a £1.1m budget has been allocated for the coverage of the city centre and a few outlying areas. The coverage map is impressive but the downgrading to a less than broadband speed has to be a disappointment for users and a measure that is hard to comprehend.

Entirely by chance I was working in the City of Norwich for two days last week and I decided to check out the service. The dream of any muninet has to be to get online for free, at the drop of a hat, from any location, at any time, with any suitable device. So just for fun I thought I would traverse the city to check out the coverage and I started with a series of coffee shops selected at random. Of the 20 I tried I was able to get online at two. Both had US parent companies and offered their usual commercial wi-fi services, and only one gave me muninet access.

Although this was pretty disappointing coverage, I really have to congratulate the Norfolk team; it was simple to access and get online, and it was trouble free – true plug and play: POP3 worked and SMTP wasn’t blocked, and there didn’t seem to be any restrictions on what could be accessed. It was however a tad slower than I am used to but better than dial up by a factor of around five. Hardly broadband, I know, but hey it is free!

Curiously, and for reasons I cannot begin to imagine, each communication session is limited to one hour. This was the only quirky aspect I could identify. Anyway, I was more concerned with the lack of city coverage. Only one coffee shop out of 20 in the city centre seemed at odds with the claims of wi-fi nodes on multiple lampposts providing comprehensive coverage. So I headed for the Castle Mall. Zippo! Not a sausage – no signals, no users and no nodes in evidence. Perhaps the muninet boys were having a bad day, and I was too – I had just wasted two hours footing it around the city looking for wi-fi signals in the streets and in stores and shops. I decided to call it a day and get back to more serious work.

The next day I came back and decided to give it another go – perhaps the system would be up and fully functional on day two. I retraced my footsteps with exactly the same results. But then I increased the number of coffee shops to 25, and added the Chapplefields Shopping Mall. Bingo! I found another three muninet access points in coffee shops, plus more commercial providers. But there was still no citywide street coverage as far as I could detect. Moreover, I couldn’t actually see any obvious signs of lamppost mounted wi-fi nodes, or indeed, any on buildings or walls etc.

I didn’t have time to investigate further as I had just burnt a further couple of foot-slogging hours, and I concluded the most likely explanation is that the network must still be under construction, and that advertising is probably running ahead of reality.

But there is a much bigger concern that needs to be addressed. In my entire two days working in the city I only saw one other laptop in the open, and no PDAs. Not once did I see anyone using a laptop or PDA in public. I just saw one other laptop and that being carried openly – and not being used!

Norwich is a low crime area, so there ought to be few worries about sitting in a coffee shop working. There is a well-known university and a research park, and quite a few high-tech companies – perhaps I need to take a trip out of the city to check out these areas too. But the lack of laptop visibility does seem at odds with other major cities and regional centres in the UK.

I’ll be working back in Norwich City again in a few weeks and I’m going to find it hard not to do another trawl. In the meantime I just hope that this pioneering team has started something that will catch on across the UK. Certainly, the impact of muninets in the US et al has been profound. They really do change everything. For instance…

Here’s a map of municipal wireless networks in the US from our sister site News.com.

And here’s a newspaper article and some further information on Google’s wi-fi service in Mountain View, California.

In the long run I can see this muninet changing things for Norwich too but for sure it will take time. This is really more about human habits and working practices rather than raw technology. But installing the network, making it all available, simple and free, is the first and most vital step.