Concerns in other cities of mis-use
Aberdeen launches controversial free wi-fi kiosks
David Wallace (BT), Innes Walker (Aberdeen Inspired); Jenny Laing and Douglas Lumsden (Aberdeen City Council)
Aberdeen has become the second city in Scotland to install a free wi-fi network amid concerns elsewhere in the UK that the new kiosks have become a focus for drug dealers and anti-social behaviour.
The company behind the devices has been forced to install new software in an attempt to stop dealers and pranksters mis-using the service.
The InLink service from BT promises residents, visitors and shoppers fast public wi-fi, free calls to landlines and mobiles, free mobile charging points, and a range of digital services, including local council and community information. Kiosks are already installed in Glasgow, London and Cardiff.
While the new service was welcomed by Aberdeen city council and business groups, it comes after a wave of opposition in England from councils, the police and community groups. Only last week Tower Hamlets council in London, supported by the police, demanded BT disable the free calls function on the “smart” telephone boxes as drug dealers in Whitechapel were found to be using used them to sell drugs.
Westminster council said it has linked anti-social behaviour to the kiosks and has backed Tower Hamlets which in December became the first council to suspend the service. Police claimed 20,000 calls in Tower Hamlets had been made to known drug dealers in just four months. A separate kiosk was used to facilitate £1.28 million in drug sales.
Islington council has requested free calls from three kiosks in Finsbury Park be suspended after they were connected to drug dealing, and Camden stopped BT installing new kiosks over “community safety” fears.
Chief Superintendent Sue Williams, from the Metropolitan Police’s central east basic command unit, told the Evening Standard newspaper: “We found overwhelming evidence that the telephone function of these units was linked to crime and anti-social behaviour locally.”
The problem was not confined to London as Bristol City Council barred 20 out of 25 InLink applications after local police objected, citing concerns raised in the east London borough.
InLink said it has developed software to manage anti-social behaviour, with a new automatic call-blocking feature on digital street units to prevent misuse of free calls.
An algorithm identifies suspicious call patterns and phone numbers, which are then blocked. Inlink said this would ensure that its kiosks are “a valued part of the communities they serve”.
Criticism of the new kiosks is not limited to anti-social behaviour. They have been described as an eyesore and simply a means to position more outdoor advertising in city centre streets.
InLinkUK is a joint venture between Intersection, the urban innovation company behind LinkNYC, and Primesight, a UK-based outdoor advertising company, in partnership with BT. It will replace more than 1,000 pay phones. Advertising revenue allows the service to be delivered free and at no cost to the taxpayer or local councils.
Pressure group Adblock Bristol said outdoor advertising companies are “bombarding UK cities with planning applications for more and more digital screens” and an “attempt to obscure the fact that these are just advertising screens masquerading as a public service.”
Jenny Laing, co-leader of Aberdeen City Council, said: “It’s great to see another development for local people, visitors and businesses which supports our digital ambitions. Supporting our city centre with fast wi-fi and other services will help increase footfall, and aid retail and economic growth as a result.”
Innes Walker, city centre manager for Aberdeen Inspired, said: “The addition of InLink devices to the city centre will help visitors recognise Aberdeen as a modern, forward-looking, technologically advanced city, supporting the tourist and retail economy and helping to attract investment.”
David Wallace, BT director for public sector in Scotland and chairman of the BT Scotland board, said: “At BT, inclusive services are really important to us and we want everyone to be able to make the most of digital opportunities.” He said the service will benefit those living and working in Aberdeen as well as visitors.
“We welcome the support from Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeen Inspired in helping us deliver this new service. Across the UK, InLink is already transforming high streets, removing unwanted payphones and giving streets a modern facelift with our compact and free of charge wi-fi and digital services.”
Matt Bird, General Manager of InLinkUK, said: “We are keen to continue our very successful roll out of the InLink from BT service to benefit consumers in Aberdeen. We want to support consumers’ digital innovation ambitions by offering city workers, shoppers and tourists free digital services and help to create a Smart city in Aberdeen.”