WITH a decision due tonight on whether or not Swindon Council will sign off the rest of a £450,000 loan to support Signal – the town-wide Wi-fi project – the man behind the scheme outlines his case.

Internet firm Digital City chief executive Rikki hunt has spoken to the Adver about the trials and tribulations of setting up the innovative project and why he thinks the people that publicly question him should look at the bigger picture.

Who really cares if everyone in Swindon has free or cheap access to wi-fi or not?

Well, I do, for a start. And to be honest, I think we all should. The internet gives power to the people. It’s a massive source of knowledge and enlightenment, as well as enabling us to develop applications to make our society safer, more secure, more economically competitive and more environmentally friendly.

It’s as ground breaking and significant today as the introduction of the Penny Post or the motor car or the aeroplane were to our fore-fathers.

Just this week, a BBC World Service poll suggested that almost four in five people around the world believe that access to the internet is a fundamental right. The UN wants to see access to the internet become universal.

Yet today in Swindon – despite Swindon being one of the UK’s best areas for broadband connectivity – around 50 per cent of the 88,800 households in our borough are not connected to the internet at all, and 20 per cent of those that are have very poor quality of service.

By offering two hours of free wi-fi a day to every resident of Swindon at the time of day that suits them, Digital City’s Signal will be connecting people who otherwise risk being excluded socially. We are working with partners to recycle computers and offer training so that becoming a surfer – silver or not – is made easy. But while social inclusion is important, there are other powerful reasons for Swindon becoming connected. Wi-fi access across the borough will be a major attraction for companies planning to move here as well as for firms already based in Swindon. This system takes minutes to set up, rather than the weeks it takes to order a phone account, and will simplify IT for small and medium enterprises, who instead of having to maintain their own networks will be able to rely on Signal – so saving money and streamlining their businesses.

Once roll-out is complete, anyone in Swindon will be able to log on to the internet while on the move and browse the web, have unlimited downloads, and send and receive emails.

Cafes and companies will be able to offer visitors this facility for free, if they choose – a valuable unique selling point of doing business here. Current broadband users will be able to cut their costs, and the unconverted using the free service will be able to try before they buy. But as exciting are the applications that will come out of this system.

CCTV could become completely joined up through Signal, reducing public sector costs and making it more effective. You’ll be able to monitor your own house on your laptop while abroad on holiday – even if it’s just to check that the kids and dog are OK. Down the line, costs of sending and receiving texts and emails when abroad will plummet with Signal. It will even allow more efficient energy distribution throughout the national grid.

Yes, this is new, and it’s brave. But that’s the beauty and the strength of it.

Highworth was a challenging place to do the first roll-out, but in starting there we have ironed out many obstacles which will make the rest of the roll-out run more smoothly once the draw-down is approved.

Already 90 per cent of Highworth is covered, with the exception of one or two blackspots.

We’ve had some fantastic feedback from users so far, congratulating us on Signal itself and its value for money.

We’re already being inundated with enquiries from other towns and boroughs around the country who see its potential. Of course, Swindon has a track record for trailblazing – 170 years ago, Daniel Gooch identified Swindon as the ideal location for the Brunel’s Great Western Railway works. The decision turned a small market town into a transport, communications and economic power house.

A century later, Swindon was still at the forefront of national innovation and social inclusion. Aneurin Bevan MP, determined to create a National Health Service offering every member of society cradle-to-grave healthcare, visited Swindon to see how Gooch’s GWR Medical Fund, paid for by employees’ contributions, worked in practice. Bevan urged Clement Atlee’s cabinet to adopt the same system for the entire country.

“There it was,” Bevan was reported to have said later.

“A complete health service, and all we had to do was to expand it to embrace the whole country.”

I understand there are those that doubt the benefits that wi-fi can bring to our whole town, and the wisdom of the council’s partnership with Digital City. But I am also sure there were those who doubted Gooch and Bevan at the time. As then, I am confident that those who need to make the decision tonight will make the right one for Swindon.