Municipal wireless networks in Spain

This southern European country is undergoing a Wi-Fi revolution. Until recently, only a few cities have launched modest Wi-Fi projects. Since regulatory and technical issues have been clarified, more cities have deployed municipal wireless networks, and many others are currently in the planning stage.

Specifically, since Barcelona decided in 2008 to deploy two city-wide Wi-Fi projects, more local public administrations have begun viewing wireless networks as an important advantage, for municipal (internal) use and for public Wi-Fi access. A recent national public funding program and changes in regulations have encouraged further deployments. At present, over 300 city councils are offering outdoor Wi-Fi service. This number increases weekly, and may soon double.

Incumbent telecom operators have opposed the projects. The operators, who have invested large amounts of money in the latest 3G technologies and continue to upgrade their networks to LTE, argue that publicly funded networks will compete unfairly with their own 3G service. (Note: see Esme Vos article, Is Wi-Fi the real competitor to LTE?)

The origins of municipal wireless in Spain

The first attempts to create large scale Wi-Fi networks started in medium-sized cities such as Avilés, Málaga and San Sebastián, although using different approaches. Avilés (pop. 84,000) launched an initiative that aimed to cover 60 percent of the city center with 66 access points. They decided to offer free Internet service, paid by the advertising from local companies.

In San Sebastian (pop. 185,000) a low-cost network has been deployed, offering €1 ($1.35) per day connections. Málaga (pop. 580,000) has also deployed a large free Wi-Fi network. However, Málaga ignored Spanish regulations and recently had to pay large fines. After the deployment of these networks, a few other small towns decided to offer their own wireless services, sometimes only in small areas around public buildings, but others have opted to provide community-wide coverage (e.g. Burjassot (near Valencia) and A Estrada (in Galicia).

Some of the first most significant public WiFi deployments in Spain

Large municipal Wi-Fi deployments

The next series of large municipal wireless networks began to appear two years ago with the deployments in Barcelona, Girona and Zaragoza.

Barcelona has a specific technical model. Until that point, all networks had been designed for public use only, or for municipal and public use at the same time, but based on a single network. Barcelona decided to install two large networks: one giant Wi-Fi mesh for municipal use only, and another one for the public.

The municipal network is based on an fiber optic core network, with access points installed on traffic and street light poles; this network will soon provide connectivity to more than 30 percent of the city using more than 400 mesh access points. The network is designed to be used only for municipal applications. Some of these municipal services were previously using GPRS/UMTS connectivity, so the network aims to reduce operational costs, increase service reliability and security, and make new applications available or easier to deploy. Barcelona uses its network for (among others) parking meter control, running wireless cameras to detect traffic light violations, providing bus information and managing the public bicycle rental service .


Wireless access points in Barcelona used for municipal applications

The city installed a second Wi-Fi network based in public facilities such as libraries, marketplaces, parks, etc. to offer indoor and outdoor connectivity. This network of around 200 hotspots offer free Wi-Fi access, which is restricted to the opening hours of the facilities. As it will be explained later in the regulatory section below, this could change in the next months.


Public network access points in Barcelona

Zaragoza (pop. 675,000) is also deploying one of the biggest municipal Wi-Fi networks in Spain. Based on a core fiber optic network and radio links, they are installing around 400 access points, with a total investment over $2 million. The network is targeted at three different groups:

  • Municipal employees (similar to Barcelona)
  • Forty thousand university students (who get free access)
  • Everyone else (for a small fee)

Early this year, the Spanish government launched a plan to fund municipal projects as part of its efforts to revive the economy. One of the objectives of this $7 billion FEESL (National Funding for Employment and Local Sustainability) is to promote technology-based infrastructure. Many Spanish city councils took advantage of this economic aid from the national government to plan future deployments. In most of cases, the Wi-Fi networks will be dedicated to municipal applications.

In a few cases, however, the cities will be reselling bandwidth surplus to provide low cost Internet access to residents. The biggest Wi-Fi networks planned with this funding will be deployed in medium-sized cities such as Pamplona, Cáceres, Mataró, Viladecans and many others.

Madrid has attempted several times to deploy public Wi-Fi networks. One of them includes wireless connections in all buses (not yet complete). The most successful (non-municipal Wi-Fi) case in the Spanish capital is a collaboration between a private company Wifimas and the Press Sellers Association: access points have been installed on 120 newspaper kiosks all around the city. Wifimas, responsible for network operations also in Avilés, offers in both cities free Wi-Fi for 30 minutes everyday, and low cost unlimited access.


Wifimas WiFi hotspots in Madrid

Despite these two and other indirect initiatives, the City Council of Madrid has not directly proposed to deploy any large-scale wireless network for municipal use. Five other small councils in its area however are offering public Wi-Fi service: Pozuelo, Leganés, Getafe, Coslada and Colmenar Viejo.

Special networks

There are also two remarkable initiatives not mentioned above. They both started as collaborative networks of users willing to share their wireless connection: Guifi.net is the biggest network created by users. Since 2004, individual users and small municipalities have connected to what has become the biggest Wi-Fi network in Spain; it encompasses 10,000 hotspots. Users can buy recommended access points or configure any other device, and follow a few rules in order to join the community. Some towns have created dense wireless areas, but in other regions there are practically no Wi-Fi hotspots. Most of the users of Guifi.net however are based in northeastern Catalonia. It can’t be considered exactly a public Wi-Fi network, rather the interconnection of thousands of users who want to contribute to create an open, free and neutral network.

Another similar case is the FON network. This is a global initiative with approximately 1.5 million users worldwide. Although it started in Spain, it has not been as successful as in other countries (UK, France, Japan), even though it has several thousand registered users. This private company has a similar model: users with an existing wired connection can buy a special access point from FON to share their wireless connection with other users (also sharing their WiFi, or just paying for it). FON has agreements with several municipalities to collaborate in local deployments, as in Santa Cruz de Tenerife (Canary Islands) or Málaga itself.

The Spanish regulatory landscape

The Comisión del Mercado de las Telecomunicaciones (CMT) is the national telecommunications regulator, equivalent to the American FCC. Spanish law requires all municipalities to register with the CMT if they want to offer telecommunications services. They must comply with the following rules:

  • Networks must be self-sustaining. They can be publicly funded, but must be based on a coherent business model, and operational costs must be paid by users (directly through a subscription, or indirectly via sponsorship).
  • To avoid unfair competition with operators, they should also be based on principles of neutrality, transparency and non-discrimination.

The Spanish government is revising this regulation. Combining the responses from a public consultation launched in 2009 and the European Commission’s recommendations on public networks, a draft for new conditions has just been published (April 2010). The final resolution is scheduled for the summer of 2010, and few changes are foreseen. This new law applied to all municipalities that wish to deploy networks or provide telecommunication services, but the most interesting and controversial sections relate to Wi-Fi networks and FTTH deployments.

The new legislation (to be approved before summer 2010) is based on the previous one, yet it is more flexible and open. It clarifies the situations in which cities can offer Wi-Fi service. According to the draft released in April 2010:

  • One of the big surprises is the introduction of a 256 Kbps limit for free public networks. Formerly free access was only allowed for a short predetermined period of time, basically as pilot test or in order to reduce the digital divide. From now on, any administration will be able to offer free unlimited access at this speed. The limit is fixed to avoid “unfair” competition with the private operators. Obviously this has been criticized by mobile operators (opposed to any kind of free access) and by users (who consider it to be too slow). Spain has one of the highest numbers of smartphone and data card users usage, and 3G networks in Spain are one of the most advanced and extended in the world. Several operators already offer advanced 3G technologies such as HSDPA (7.2 Mbps), and are deploying HSPA+ (16-21Mbps). They are even testing LTE. The government has determined that providing public Wi-Fi for free at 256 Kbps does not compete with the business of mobile operators.
  • Other cases where free public networks will be directly approved by the CMT are networks at educational centers (schools, colleges, universities), for both students and workers, and any other network installed for municipal purposes.
  • City councils can still offer Wi-Fi for use by the public but as in the previous regulation, the operational expenditure must be paid for by the users or by sponsorship. As for the CAPEX, the network must include a valid plan to generate a positive cash flow, and the network should keep its own accounts, independent from the rest of the municipal administration.

How are these networks running?

Several different business models are running in Spanish Wi-Fi networks. The most common is the use of a private company to run the municipal network, which is owned by the city. Most city councils install the networks after a public tender inviting local and national companies to participate.  The winning bidder has a 2-, 5- or 10-year contract to operate the network. In networks combining both municipal and public use, the operator must ensure high QoS levels for municipal use and is allowed to resell the surplus bandwidth, generally as a low-cost Wi-Fi service for residents. In many cases, the operator is required to pay an annual fee to the city council to help defray the city’s initial deployment expenses and to help pay for future upgrades.

As discussed in the cases of Madrid or Avilés, fully independent networks run by a private company are also possible, although they are generally private networks (not used for municipal applications).

Finally, in some cases the city council will use the network only for municipal applications. They often retain the systems integrator to provide technical support but do not offer any public Wi-Fi service.

Applications used on Spanish municipal networks

Most of the councils deploying wireless networks define a series of initial services to be used, but ensure that the network can be utilized for new applications or even for public Wi-Fi service. The preferred services are:

Security and surveillance: Though many surveillance and traffic control cameras are already connected to fiber optic links, almost all new wireless installations include wireless surveillance systems, due to its quick installation and flexibility.

Telemetry: To take advantage of the easy installation of wireless sensors, many councils are either using or planning to use the municipal network with Wi-Fi sensors, for irrigation control in parks, but also to get real time data on weather measurements, pollution, and even noise levels. They are planning to install wireless meter reading for water, gas and electricity home meters. Even though most of the privately owned utilities plan to use radio-frequency or M2M devices, municipalities with public Wi-Fi networks are also looking to incorporate these services into their networks.

Traffic management: To catch people who run red lights, most city councils are installing cameras at intersections (probably because they bring additional income). A few councils are also installing Wi-Fi velocity radar systems, although it’s not such an extended service.

Parking meter control: Most of the street parking in the centers of Spanish cities have become paying areas. There are thousands of parking meters to control short-term parking (blue area) or long-term for residents (green area). Many of these devices are easy to install, as they get electrical power from solar cells and are data-connected to mobile or Wi-Fi networks. The latter reduces operating costs, as the municipality is able to control them directly, instead of having to pay an operator.

Public bicycle rental systems: Many cities are currently deploying a network of cheap rental bikes as a public transportation system, a new trend in European cities. Barcelona’s bicing was the first and biggest in Spain, with over 400 stations and more than 6000 bikes. Most of the stations are currently controlled by GPRS, but eventually the city will connect these bicycle rental stations to the municipal Wi-Fi network. Other cities with Wi-Fi networks and public bicycle rentals could also soon implement this service to reduce costs (e.g. Zaragoza; Girona, Pamplona or Cáceres).

Access control: Many cities have converted areas in their centers to pedestrian-only zones. In the past, they have used RF systems to allow only residents or service automobiles to enter these zones, but currently the preferred system consists of a camera for license plate recognition (either to lower a bollard, or to fine unauthorized vehicles). Many of these installations currently use fiber optic connections, but thanks to Wi-Fi networks, it is becoming much cheaper and faster to install new access gates (even faster if they only include a camera but not the bollard).

Wi-Fi in buses: There are many possible uses for Wi-Fi networks on public buses. Madrid has been testing Wi-Fi in buses (where the backhaul is a 3G connection). Barcelona is deploying a system combined with GPS to determine the location of buses, and to alert commuters about the waiting time. This information is available on some bus stops, but also via SMS. Other places, such as Girona, were planning to use the Wi-Fi network for data and voice connections between the driver and the control center.

Mobile worker applications: Last but not least, many municipal workers are now using municipal Wi-Fi networks to reduce communication costs and improve efficiency. Depending on the city, portable Wi-Fi enabled devices are provided to police officers, sanitary workers, architects, cleaning crews; in some instances, these devices are installed in vehicles.

Challenges

Some of the most important cities in Spain are already enjoying the benefits of municipal wireless networks, or are currently installing and expanding them. Many other cities and towns are planning their own initiatives. The regulatory hurdles are being finally clarified and will soon allow more deployments.

As for technical complexity, Spain has several particularities. Despite the average low density of the whole country, most of the population is concentrated in medium-sized cities full of apartment buildings and condos. This enables rapid deployment of wireless networks. The core network however might require some specific and thoughtful design. Most cities have private fiber optic networks, but the operators are not usually reselling them to the local public administration; instead, they offer FTTH service to residents and businesses. Most of the Wi-Fi deployments then, must include new fiber installations to feed the access points (even though most cities use mesh topology), or install new radio links as a temporary solution. Note that the first deployments in Spain have been carried out by companies that already owned their own fiber network, which reduced installation costs.

Also note that most Spanish cities are built around a medieval center, often declared as an historical heritage site. This might raise the cost of electrical and data connections. Rules governing the visibility of access points also apply. In those cases however, the network will be usually offering free tourist and services information.

Finally, even when the regulations are finalized, the biggest hurdle to deployments of wireless networks in Spain are the municipalities’ own lack of global vision and their inability to see the long term advantages of Wi-Fi networks. The first successful cases are currently changing this point of view, and encouraging more city councils to promote new public wireless networks.

Conclusions

Spain was late to join the club of Wi-Fi countries, but since the regulatory framework is much clearer and more flexible, some big cities are deploying large scale Wi-Fi networks that will be used for interesting applications. Indeed, more cities are planning networks for municipal and low-cost public Internet access.

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About the author
Miquel Vidal is an Electrical Engineer working for Nae, a global consultancy firm. Nae contributes to their clients’ success through their experience and knowledge in technology, process management and business models. Among Nae’s main strengths are strategy definition, design and deployment of wireless networks. Nae has collaborated in the development of several of the most important wireless networks in Spain.

Comments

  1. Markus Noiha says:

    Very good article. I’m living in Spain and I think Spanish people will be able to enjoy one of the best public networks very soon. And in Spain this is very important since the incumbent (Telefonica) has a large share of the market.
    Check out this useful interactive map of city wireless networks:
    observatorio.gowex.com

    Some 10 cities with the maps of wifi lans available for users and the diferent clases of networks. I found very convenient in my daily work.

  2. Fahad says:

    we intend to deploy wireless project in Lahore city Pakista. Please send me all details of this project

  3. Hi Fahad,
    Closer home, we have one of the largest Wi-Fi networks in India covering over 50 towns/cities. Please check out our website.