Computerised lamp posts look like being the basis of the biggest data network ever, as the world's traffic monitors set about controlling cars with wireless. And the result could be an absolute windfall for a startup company which, it seems, owns all the relevant patents.
The excitement about WiFi has, at last, started penetrating through to the consumer mind, with home users connecting their PCs to the Internet without wires and working in their bedrooms, sitting rooms, kitchens, and even in coffee shops, gyms and railway stations. And it turns out that you can even use your PC as a sort of free telephone - to the point where people are even asking whether perhaps, home-made wireless might penetrate further than 3G phone networks can. One day, maybe in three years or longer, perhaps, say the pioneers.
But if Last Mile is right, then the WiFi revolution could happen much, much faster than anybody has dreamed. It will give us the Internet almost literally everywhere - in town, in the country, even in tunnels - and it will give commerce and industry a whole new media. And it could start being installed this year, using the world's highways as the base network.
It's a very simple concept. "Take a lamp post, put electronics in it, send messages to other wireless devices, including other lamp posts." You can link the lamp post to the Internet directly, if there's an internet connection available - any sort of connection at all will do. High speed fibre is best, but if that's not available, then a satellite, or maybe a phone line nearby can be used. And if there's nothing at all, then ask the next lamp post if it has any Internet connection. It may do. If it doesn't, the next one may do; and so you go along the road until you find one that does. It takes fractions of a second to complete the chain; and once the chain is complete, any data you like can be sent down it.
The only surprising thing is: it's probably not going to be used to carry phone calls, after all.
The trigger for the new wireless revolution is a decision - not just in the UK, but world-wide - that traffic needs to be monitored. Cars need to be identified electronically; their speed checked all the time (not just when going past cameras!) and even more critically, data needs to flow back to the drivers, ensuring they know what is going on ahead of them. In the car, monitoring equipment keeps tabs on the state of the engine. If there's an accident, accelerometers can alert the network to the crash, before it turns into a multiple vehicle pile-up. Other vehicles rushing towards the scene can be automatically notified, and a new speed limit imposed within a fraction of a second of the accident happening - and, in theory, the speed limit could be enforced, once legislation to enable this is available.
The eventual dream, of course, is that people won't have to drive any more. Computerised motor vehicles will automatically travel at a safe speed and a safe distance from other traffic; tired drivers won't be able to kill themselves and others, and you won't have to take a train in order to get work done on the journey. But to make that possible, a telematics network has to be set up first.
When the UK Highways Agency started planning this future, it put out a tender for the contract to equip the major roads with wireless. "It quickly became apparent to them that Last Mile owned all the relevant patents for the system they had in mind," reports CEO, Antony Abell. "They went to the old Road Research Laboratory, now the TRL, who made a recommendation for microwave beacon technology for roadside telematics; at the end, they had a pretty good design, but they found that to implement it involved using our patents."
It's such a good system, however, that they're going ahead.
The system Last Mile has evolved uses high frequency microwave radio, very low power, with a very fast data rate. To be specific, the frequency is more than 30 times faster than the normal cellphone frequency - it operates at 63 GHz, compared to the 1.9 GHz of American GSM cellphones, for example - which means it can carry enormously more data.
"If you look at how much electronics you can get into a lamp-post, or a traffic light, or any other bit of ordinary street furniture such as a 'Keep Left' sign or a 'No Entry' indicator, it's impressive," said Abell. "A typical Wi-Fi network carries 11 megabits per second, out of which the user gets 5 megabits maximum - which is ten times the data that most people get over their broadband service over ADSL or cable modems. And that then gets divided up, so if you have two users, they get half that; if you have four, they get a quarter, and so on.
"But we reckon that we can launch our system with a very conservative data service of up to 40 megabits per second for every user in the micro-cell around a lamp post. And we're confident that we can then upgrade the performance to a maximum of 200 megabits - maybe not for every user, but for several - in a 200-300 metre range. That's more data than anybody currently knows what to do with," Abell said.
It's certainly a lot more data capacity than the Highways Agency has asked for, and so whoever buys into this technology is buying what could be a gold mine.
What is expected to happen, is that contractors will install the intelligent lamp posts in areas. They'll provide the basic traffic telemetry and telematic services that the Government requires - and then they'll have the rest of the bandwidth free to sell on, providing other services.
The timing couldn't be a lot better, with the first contracts rolling out this year. The highway net is going to be urgently needed, because the excitement over Wi-Fi is showing not just what amazing potential wireless Internet has, but how critically limited it is so far. Publicity has excitedly focused on startups like The Cloud, with literally thousands of betting shops, gyms, and leisure centres all wirelessly enabled. But The Cloud has far fewer than one wireless centre per town in Britain - none at all out in the countryside. You can, just about, guarantee that wherever you are as you read this, you're out of range of The Cloud - and no other wireless Internet provider comes even close to their coverage.
To fully equip every street in Britain with conventional wireless networking, would require a prodigious effort. It would require a huge boom in the fashion for wireless meshes - people in their homes installing equipment like the LocustWorld Meshbox, and linking them all together, and connecting them to the Internet. It would require a huge expansion in corporate Wi-Fi installation, too, to cover urban areas, and it would have to be co-ordinated so that neighbouring masts didn't compete for the same wireless channels.
Or, it could ride piggyback on the highway network - and be used to provide local services. Not, says Abell, a job he wants: "We are not a service provider. We want to produce the technology - a transceiver post. Most of our electronics goes into a long board which we put inside the post, and then we put the transceiver on the top. We've devised various ways to do uploads onto the post, and we're assuming that most of the information that people will want will be stored there most of the time in a cache. We cache on the post; putting somewhere between a gigabyte to four gigabytes of flash memory into each module."
Someone else will install this. Someone else will approach the local community with a marketing proposition - for example: "Advertise with us, and we'll make sure that anybody driving into the town and looking for a place to eat will hear from you over the telemetry wireless." Initially, it will probably be Wi-Fi that provides this last link; other technologies are around the corner with systems like the nearly-standard WiMAX and perhaps Ultra-Wide Band networking appearing on the market in the next few years, too. Any of them could ride on top of the highway net.
"What that does, is to break away from the subsidy model," said Abell. "The sellers of information put their info on the post; the public can access it. We ask them to pay for the infrastructure, which is just a post and software. We feed data to the post over whatever technology there is - we can be fixed line, or GPRS, or satellite, or fibre. Any wire that goes there, we can use as a network to upload. We can daisy chain and mesh as well. S the system is not network dependent. We can bypass existing exchange systems, making a really reliable, resilient data providing carrier system."
And the Highways Agency will get five percent of the bandwidth in every lamp-post: the local contractors can sell off all the rest. If the cost of the electronics is around £200 per lamp post, then Last Mile calculates that the local service provider should be able to cover installation costs within six months - maybe less in some cases.
One of the issues which is of concern, of course, is public fear of "radiation" which has led to many pressure groups. It doesn't seem to matter whether there's any evidence at all of a health hazard - just the sight of a mobile phone mast can trigger fears of the invisible power beaming out of it. So it will be a relief to all politicians to know that the new 63 GHz network is far, far less powerful - at 200 milliwatts, the highway net transceivers will produce around half of one per cent of the full power of a mobile phone mast.
Exactly where we go from here, remains to be seen. A network like this will attract innovators like a lake of honey attracts bees; ideas will grow as the network does, and not even the best-informed predictions can expect to cover all the possibilities. But the excitement is tangible: this will be installed, and it will be in place starting this year. A complete country-wide network on all motorways and major roads should be complete within a year; after that, it can be expanded to minor roads at minimal extra cost.
And of course, the phone network carriers can breathe a sigh of relief if it turns out not to be suitable for carrying voice traffic - though even that is far from certain.
The future has plenty of surprises, but at least it won't be the nasty discovery that there isn't enough Internet bandwidth.
For details of the Government Highways project see the official web site.