Town Council agree £48k public wifi plan – but is that a good use of your money?

In an age of multiple wifi access points and relatively cheap mobile data is a £48,000 Sutton Coldfield Town Council public wifi investment good value for money?

Wifi

The Town Council seem to think so as members voted in favour of the recommendation made by the Finance & General Purposes Committee at Wednesday’s meeting, but would this be your choice in the use for your precept money? Is the Town Council behind the times when it comes to accessing the interwebs on mobile devices?

I’m not sure I would consider it money well spent – after all, I can’t remember the last time I needed an Internet connection while in Sutton Coldfield town centre and couldn’t find one.

Want to access the net while having coffee? The cafes and coffee shops have wifi. Shopping? Well the Gracechurch Centre has free wifi as do a number of individual shops such as Waterstones. With Virgin Media or BT? There are a number of hotspots that can be used for free. Travelling into Sutton by public transport? Use the free wifi to check the town out before you get here. And then of course there is the library, which not only provides free wifi but computers to access it on. With the exception of BT, I’ve used all of those and on the rare occasion I have been too far from the town centre to benefit I have switched to 4g mobile data.

That’s just my experience of course and an opinion based on the idea of the implementation of public wifi purely to support the Town Centre. There could be other reasons for the £48,000 investment that I have missed or maybe I’m not the target market. But is it just me that finds the objectives unclear?

A company used by the Town Council to produce a report into their wifi options concluded that:

‘The purpose of the Sutton Coldfield Wi-Fi network is uncertain. It is recommended that RSCTC defines the target audience(s) for public Wi-Fi in Sutton Coldfield, and considers the recommendations below prior to progressing with the project. This can be achieved either prior to commissioning a Wi-Fi provider, or during the commissioning phase of works.’

In terms of wifi to support the activities of the town centre the report went on to say that:

‘A public Wi-Fi network alone will not re-energise town centre businesses and services, and if this is the objective of the Wi-Fi network for Sutton Coldfield town centre, it should not yet be delivered. This goal is better delivered through capacity and skills training for interested businesses and community organisations, building their confidence in using digital tools as part of their day-to-day management and marketing activity, ensuring these groups are easily and simply discoverable via mainstream search engines, such as Google, and industry-specific platforms, such as OpenTable, and that they can trade online via eBay or Amazon Marketplace. Lloyds Bank6 found that the most digitally mature organisations are 64% more likely to report increased turnover than their non-digital counterparts.

The current redesign of the RSCTC website, and potential development of companion social media channels and shared promotional activity with other local stakeholders, will also contribute to broader business and service sustainability. While a Wi-Fi network may promote the RSCTC website and business offer, the user is inevitably already in the town centre. As mentioned earlier, consumers (shoppers, tourists, residents, workers, investors) are increasingly combining online and offline (word of mouth, flyers) information when planning where to eat, shop, invest or call home. Engaging with the Connected Consumer prior to their arrival in a town centre is key, irrespective of whether this is for an individual business offer or promoting an event or cultural offer delivered by RSCTC. A Wi-Fi network will not achieve this.’

So what about using public wifi to promote Sutton Coldfield Town Council activity? (It is certainly needed):

‘…if promoting RSCTC activity is the objective of the Wi-Fi network for Sutton Coldfield town centre, it should not yet be delivered until a broader engagement strategy has been confirmed. Developing multiple touchpoints, and ensuring these ‘talk’ to one another through common branding and ambition is essential to establish a strong, clear place identity for Sutton Coldfield.’

In addition to the public wifi, the report recommends a new website just 12 months after the Council paid £2,880 for the current one. Let’s hope that this time the tender will be widely promoted.

9 Responses

  1. Tony Cannon says:

    10 Years ago, maybe this was a good investment but now it is a total waste of the resident’s precept. There is no problem accessing the internet in the town centre. Unfortunately, the Town Council either did not understand the report which is quite clear in its recommendations or the decision had already been made. Paul Long is probably the only Town Councillor with significant expertise in this field but he was not even allowed to take part in the discussion. Perhaps it is political driven and the objective is to produce a headline that the ‘Conservative led Town Council brings 21st century communications to the town centre with free WI-Fi for everyone.’ (Only it is not free,we are paying for it and no-one asked us if we wanted it..)

    • Peter says:

      Agreed, sounds like a hijack of the work being done by the BID which is paid for by local businesses and not through the precept

  2. Olive O' Sullivan, Town Clerk says:

    Investment in Wi-Fi is the first phase of a wider RSCTC plan, with the intent of following on with other supporting features in due course (town centre plan, capacity building, business support training, heritage trail) as was suggested in the report. However, the article doesn’t reflect this. The article does acknowledge that the town centre and SMEs do indeed need support; the case studies at the end of the report also reflect this. The report also states that “Wi-Fi could be a sound investment to support other infrastructure, business development and promotional activity” and is a “potentially powerful piece of a wider connectivity and engagement jigsaw”. RSCTC is at the beginning of a process to create a more connected, user-friendly experience for users and businesses in Sutton Coldfield.

    • Peter says:

      Isn’t the Town Centre Bid already working on some of these areas? And wasn’t there plans for the digitalisation of the town’s heritage by the BID at one point?

      http://www.suttoncoldfieldtowncentre.co.uk/about/?/Future-plans-for-the-BID

    • Tony Cannon says:

      I would interested to know where this idea originated – from a business development perspective the availability of ‘fibre direct to premises’ connections delivering ultra high speed broadband is more important. – maybe this is what the consultants meant when they stated that additional Wi Fi infrastructure could be a sound investment? If so it should it not be funded by the BID

      The ‘Full Town Centre Plan’ I would have thought should be available for scrutiny and comment especially where significant amounts of public money are to be spent.

      I seem to remember that a re-generation plan was prepared some years ago involving significant redevelopment including a new Bus Station. This was put out for consultation but in the end was dropped by BCC..

      Local government is supposed to be open and transparent and driven by the residents. I have seen nothing to indicate that an additional free Wi Fi service in the town centre at £48k plus annual running costs is top of their list.

  3. Tony Smith says:

    Whatever happened to the free parking permits thats sutton residents were meant to get for Sutton Park?
    I seem to rememeber this being in the list of benefits we would get if the parish council was voted in.

  4. Richard says:

    I welcome comments by SCTC officials but, given the Town Clerk is referencing parts of the report we cannot access it would help discussion if the report (and related documents) was published now. There is no need to wait for the minutes of the meeting.

    From the Tory manifesto:
    As Conservatives we have significant expertise in local government and finance, and a reputation for strong business and management experience…
    …Better shopping: We will aim to advertise and promote all of Sutton’s high streets and provide greater access to free WIFI in shopping areas as well as producing a guide to shopping in Sutton.

    This is a very limited aim compared to what the Town Clerk is now suggesting will happen.

  5. Paul Long says:

    I echo Richard’s comment that the report should be made public. There are some competitive quotes included in the report, but these can be easily redacted. I only got to see the report for about 5 minutes before the full town council meeting on another councillor’s iPad. The vast majority of the report was negative towards WiFi and there weren’t sufficiently sound reasons for investing in WiFi. The only possible reason from what I read would be to anonymously track movement around the town, but this generates big data and the report says it would require a full-time employee to analyse this data properly.

  6. KS says:

    I believe that a full report should be made available here for transparency. The finer details of exactly where the money is going and specifics of public access WiFi needs to be made available. I would be very interested in the area coverage for public WiFi within the town, as I have some experience in the field and expected costs.
    My initial thoughts make this look a little backwards looking, until I have more details I will reserve judgement.