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A follow-up from our open letter on Public Wifi

Last month we published an open letter from the tech community about Sheffield's Public WiFi initiative - here's the follow up.

Here’s a quick update on the response from our open letter regarding city centre WiFi.

As I’ve previously mentioned on Slack, the response to our letter from the council has been very positive and open. As well as email responses from councillor Bramall and Ed Highfield, I had a follow up conversation with David Oliver, who is the Council’s solutions architect for the project.

David explained to me broadly how our suggestions have been incorporated into the bid documents, and how the requirements will be evaluated. I should point out that the procurement is for a concession contract, which means that the provider will install, own and operate the service at no net cost to the council, or to the end user (at least for the standard service – premium or burst options beyond the minimum bandwidth are possible). This also means it is up to the prospective providers to develop and propose their business models and service offers, and so the Council is entirely reliant on what the market is able and willing to provide. It’s very unlikely that any single bidder is going to satisfy all the requirements and aspirations for the service, and compromises will need to be made. Equally, though, if prospective providers are not able to offer a sufficiently good and usable service, it may be better not to proceed with the initiative at all rather than commit to something that doesn’t work. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen and the initiative attracts some excellent bids.

On the specific points we raised in the open letter, I can say the following:

  1. Re user needs: Use cases are specifically being requested in order to evaluate how deeply providers have considered this and how credible they are.
  2. Re signposting: The bid also requests information on the openness and appearance of the gateway page / registration portal (or equivalent), along with the provider’s vision for how this will look and operate in practice.
  3. Re additional services: This possibility has been explicitly left open in the bid – in other words it is not required, but the option for providers to offer additional sensor or data services has been included.
  4. Re access to street-furniture: The bid explicitly stipulates that exclusive use of the street-furniture is only for the telecommunication services provided by the winning bidder, so they can also be used by other organisations for different purposes (although this is of course wrapped up in Health and Safety and other compliance requirements, and shared access for maintenance would need to be negotiated, etc.)
  5. Re future-proofing: prospective bidders are being asked their approach to this issue, and a technology refresh at some point during the contract has been requested.
  6. Re data transparency: bidders are being asked to describe their approach to data collection and specifically how this will be communicated to end users (as well as legal compliance and data security stipulations, of course).

Another quick point about the geographic coverage, as several people have asked me about this. Firstly, the initiative is intended to cover the Sheffield BID area (you can see the boundary here). If the service is successful and if the bidder is willing there may be the possibility of extending coverage to outside the city centre into the neighbourhoods  at a future date. The bid includes a stated desire for coverage to extend into public buildings (Winter Gardens, Moor Market, Central Library, etc.) and the potential for private retailers and hospitality operators to extend the service into their premises.

Finally, we are aiming to work with the Council and Sheffield BID to support the initiative where we can and will keep everyone informed as things progress, and as we are able. Do please bear in mind, though, that this is a commercial procurement and we absolutely must not compromise that.

The deadline for bids is currently the 6th of March.

Chris Dymond
Director, Sheffield Digital