Smart Solutions

Free Public Wi-Fi

Installation of state-of-the-art wireless internet access in the centres of rural community life.

Implemented inVillarcayo de Merindad de Castilla la Vieja

Country :

What’s the solution?

The provision of free public Wi-Fi involves the installation of a powerful wireless repeater/booster to transmit a high-speed internet connection across the municipality, where it can be received by antennae which capture the connection and make it available to nearby users.

Installing the system relies on the availability of a broadband internet access somewhere in the municipality, which can then be retransmitted and made available across a wider area.

The solution involves putting in place a powerful transmitter, which connects to and broadcasts out the main internet connection. This transmitter should ideally be located in a high-up location to enable direct ‘line-of-sight’ connectivity with the receiving antennae. It can be powered with solar panels to avoid the requirement to connect it to the mains power grid.

As many receiving antennae as are needed can then be installed in different areas of the municipality to provide local access points. These should be located according to need, thinking about both public buildings (municipal buildings, libraries, schools etc.) and outdoor spaces (such as public squares and parks).

The municipality can pay for the internet connection of all users, offering it free of charge for private and business users in the municipality, thus providing free access to the internet in areas previously suffering the consequences of the digital divide – including in locations which still have no mobile phone 3G or 4G connectivity. The solution is therefore much cheaper to operate than alternatives based on multiple separate internet connections, which all need to be paid for separately on the private market.

Providing this solution overcomes the rural digital divide locally, providing an enabling environment for the activities of residents, visitors and businesses. It can also then enable other solutions, such as the implementation of new digital public services for local inhabitants.

What makes it smart?

The solution is smart because it uses the latest next generation wireless technologies to overcome the rural digital divide and provide high speed internet connectivity across all population centres in the municipality.

The solution is strategically smart in directly tackling one of the big barriers to the long-term viability of the local economy in the digital age, including improving the quality of life of people and putting in place an enabling environment for the creation of new business and job opportunities in the area.

It is also a solution which is smart financially. Firstly, since the municipality can afford to pay the annual costs of the internet connection (as opposed to alternative solutions based on 42 different internet connections). Secondly, because it directly takes advantage of a European programme designed to support the rollout of high-speed internet to all areas of Europe – providing smart finance to meet the real needs of rural villages on the ground.

The solution also provides the basis and foundation for the provision of additional smart solutions, such as digital services to local residents - including those based on Internet of Things technologies – such as smart bins and remote flood-risk monitoring.

Finally, the solution is environmentally smart in using renewable energy sources (solar panels) to power the functioning of the wireless transmitter, which is located away from the mains electricity supply.

How is the solution implemented?

A solid implementation plan for installing a free public wifi system would be:

  1. The Municipality is likely best placed to lead such a project. So the first step is to assure the local authority’s interest.
  2. Establish current levels of internet access in the municipality, the current price of available access and barriers to expansion of internet access by the free market in the area.
  3. Identify locations which would most benefit from internet access – including both indoor and outdoor spaces – and taking account of public preferences.
  4. Draft the technical project – including proposed locations of the main transmitter and various receiver antennae.
  5. Identify and apply for funding – particularly European and national funding which may well be in place as part of high-level political strategies to overcome the digital divide.
  6. Progressively install the infrastructure, starting with the transmitter and then rolling out the service to more and more localities within the municipality.
  7. Actively inform the public about the new service and how to access it.
  8. Where possible, support the rollout of the service with digital skills training for members of the public who may need it.
  9. Ensure regular maintenance of the new service.
  10. Consider new digital services that the municipality can now provide based on the availability of a high-speed internet connection across the municipality.

In what local context has it been applied?

Villarcayo is a municipality in the north of the province of Burgos in Castilla y Leon in central northern Spain. It is located mostly to the west of a wide valley at the foot of the Cantabrian Mountains about 75 km from the provincial capital city. The municipality has 26 districts, although the population is heavily concentrated in the municipal capital of Villarcayo.

Villarcayo is characterised by a diversified economy, which has allowed it to better withstand the economic crisis. It has a relatively strong industrial sector, particularly in agri-food and construction materials. It also benefits from an important industrial estate of around 700,000 m² as well as inland tourism based on its significant monumental and landscape heritage – the local population can increase to as many as 20,000 during the summer months .

Nevertheless, the municipality experienced a population decline of more than 15% between 2011 and 2019 – from 4859 to 4097. Whilst the municipal capital benefits from a high-speed fibre-optic network, several of the municipal districts and many households still lacked internet access in 2019. This is largely due to the difficulties presented by the topography of the area and the lack of economic incentives for private service providers to deploy internet access to the more isolated and less populous districts.

Who was behind the implementation?

  • The local authority of Villarcayo de Merindad de Castilla la Vieja led the installation of the free public Wi-Fi network
  • It involved close collaboration between the municipal council and different municipal departments, including those overseeing IT, energy and infrastructure.

What was the local journey?

  • The municipal council first came up with the idea and objective of installing Wi-Fi Access points in all the municipal districts and different locations in the municipal capital.
  • However, an initial study of the possibilities clarified that 42 Wi-Fi access points would be needed and their installation was neither technically nor economically feasible for the municipality to implement. Even without considering the installation costs, the monthly costs of 42 internet connections was too expensive for the municipality to take on.
  • An alternative approach was sought and the IT department proposed a solution based on the installation of a Wi-Fi repeater (also known as a Wi-Fi booster or Wi-Fi extender) to share one internet connection across the municipality, without having to pay for 42 different internet connections.
  • In 2018, the Municipality applied to the European WIFI4EU programme, which subsidises Wi-Fi access points to provide free internet, with the obligation to offer a minimum of 30Mbps of bandwidth for upload and download. In January 2019, Villarcayo received a grant of €15,000 to allow the implementation of the system.
  • The municipality identified a private contractor to work with on the project, selecting Cambium Networks for its expertise in producing next generation Wi-Fi technologies.
  • The IT and Infrastructure Departments oversaw the process to install the Wi-Fi repeater at a relative high point in the municipality (in the mountains at 1200m above sea level) that has access to the main fibre-optic network. The repeater sends the Wi-Fi signal out to the different districts of the municipality.
  • Because the area lacks mains electricity supply, the municipal energy/electricity department installed solar panels to provide a renewable energy supply to the Wi-Fi booster.
  • After the installation of the repeater, 42 antennas were installed at different locations to receive the signal and provide internet access points, offering high-speed internet access in the different municipal buildings and public spaces of the 26 districts. Of these antennas, 35 were located inside buildings and 7 were for outdoor spaces, such as parks and squares.
  • One of the main challenges was to inform as many inhabitants as possible, with the municipality finding different channels, like press releases and advertising posters, to contact citizens with the information.
  • Inform about the service through press releases and posters.

What have been the main outputs & results?

  • The project provides high speed internet access (minimum 30 megabytes per second, but often higher at around 150 Mbps) across the municipality, including in areas that had no access previously and areas that still have no 4G mobile phone connectivity.
  • Free high-speed internet access increases the quality of life of people in the municipality – improving their access to information, services and other goods – and reducing the digital divide.
  • The number of users has grown to more than 1,500 daily users in the summer season, being able to connect up to 1,850 different devices without notifying service degradation.
  • The development of its own infrastructure has made it possible to reduce expenses derived from the telecommunications item.
  • More than 10 municipal buildings connected to this network.
  • The experience gained has enabled new projects to be explored, such as a LoRa (Internet of Things), which allows, for example, the geolocation of municipal vehicles and the use of sensors on public bins in order to optimise urban waste collection as well as the installation of internet-connected cameras to provide video surveillance of the river, allowing an early-warning system for floods. Such initiatives are now being piloted in the municipality.

What does it bring the village/community?

  • The availability of high-speed internet is a plus that is expected to attract more people to the municipality to visit, to stay and to live. This includes both short-term visitors, and those who may choose to stay for longer or even to live, particularly given the increase in remote working. This hopes to reverse the recent population decline experienced by the municipality, creating positive local development cycles.
  • Freely available Wi-Fi also creates new possibilities for entrepreneurs, including both existing businesses and the creation of new businesses in the municipality. Again, this can feed into positive local development cycles.
  • At municipal level, the system increases the possibilities for the local authorities to increase the efficiency of certain public services (eg. waste management) whilst opening up the potential for new and additional services in the future (e.g. early flood warning system), which can further improve local quality of life and the attractiveness of the area as a place to live and work.

What’s needed

Financial resources

Main types of cost:
Financial needs:

Initial investment: EUR 35 000, covering installation of the WI-Fi repeater/booster and the 42 receivers across the territory.

Ongoing/recurring annual costs: EUR 660 per year for internet access.

Funding received:
WIFI4EU programme (EU)15,000 €Co-finance for the entire public Wi-Fi infrastructure
Ayuntamiento de Villarcayo de MCV20,660 €Co-finance for the entire public Wi-Fi infrastructure, plus annual internet access

Human resources

• IT department (1 person)

• Energy department (2 people)

• Infrastructure department (2 people)

Physical resources

• 5Ghz repeater/booster powered by solar panels and lithium batteries to withstand persistent snowfall.

• 42 antennas providing internet access points.

What to do…

  • Start with a needs analysis.
  • Identify European and national funding support – many such programmes exist at the moment.

and not to do

  • Don’t put in place the service without actively informing and engaging local inhabitants.

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