An innovative project in North Solihull plans to bridge the 'digital divide' by delivering free or subsidised broadband to residents in council owned multi-storey housing blocks.

The scheme will use cutting edge 'leasedlines-in-the-sky' wireless technology.

Internet connectivity will be distributed to individual flats via electric plug sockets.

The initiative is designed to bring broadband to the residents of a group of multi-storey dwelling units (MDUs) who include a mixture of long term unemployed, low paid workers, single parent families with young children and those with disabilities.

It will also create a wireless hotspot area that Solihull Council can use to help attract local businesses to a part of North Solihull designated a deprived area.

Solihull Community Housing (SCH), which manages the council's stock of 11,000 homes, will implement the project with technology partner CI-Net, a specialist in wide area networking (WAN).

They plan to provide internet bandwidth to the buildings via CI-Net's RedKite wireless connectivity service, which uses Pre-Wimax radio signals to deliver high speed, symmetrical broadband without physical telecoms lines.

The RedKite wireless radio signal will be transferred to the buildings' electrical power lines to enable internet access through the three pin sockets in tenants' homes.

"One of our technical challenges was finding a low cost, low maintenance, reliable way of providing internet connectivity," said Chris Deery, head of IT at SCH, who was involved in solving the IT issues related to the project.

"We wanted to minimise the civil engineering work required to deliver broadband to the multi-storey buildings, as well avoid causing disruption to individual tenants during implementation.

"We also wanted a solution with the ability to expand over time so we could start with one building and roll it out to more tenants in future.'

As part of CI-Net's plan, an existing Red-Kite radio base station located five miles away in nearby Yardley will send a broadband signal to a receiver located on the roof of one of the SCH buildings.

As more buildings become part of the project the signal will be divided and relayed to them using point-to-point wireless equipment to create a wireless 'mesh' at the site.

A 'gateway' in each building will transfer the incoming bandwidth to the electricity cables running to individual flats. Tenants that qualify to receive internet access will be given specially designed connector units, which operate like modems. These can be plugged into any three-point socket to provide connectivity.

The RedKite solution will create a wireless hotspot area in the shadow of the SCH buildings which can be part of a range of council incentives to attract local businesses to help regenerate the area.

An earlier technology proposal for the project, suggested by a major cable operator, involved running conventional broadband cable to the individual buildings.

Internet connectivity could then be distributed to tenants' homes by installing wireless broadband routers on alternative floors to create a series of wireless networks throughout the buildings.

'But running cable to individual buildings could have worked out more costly and problematic because it required digging up the road.

Using the electrical infrastructure to feed internet power to the flats also avoids having to install routers to create wireless networks within the buildings.

Chris said:'We were a little worried about the routers - which would have been placed in stairwells or corridors - being at risk of damage or theft.

"We could have boxed them in for protection but that would have weakened the signal. The connectors that CI-Net is providing will be used within the safety of individual flats. And because they have a unique IP address identifying each user individually, there's little chance they'll be stolen as they have no resale value."

Surveys conducted by SCH indicated an increasing willingness among tenants to embrace the internet. Some of the reasons highlighted in the research included tenants wanting to use the web to improve IT literacy skills in order to widen employment prospects, to gain greater access to social services and support organisations, to provide an educational resource for schoolchildren.