If me and my trusty old Ipaq PDA (personal digital assisant) can hack it...anyone can. At least, that is, if they have an electronic gadget with something called Wi-Fi installed in its innards...
Birmingham – at least a square mile or so around the city centre – has finally gone totally Wi-Fi. It works. And much of it is free.
So, in the very near future expect to see a great many more people peering into their laptops, PDAs and mobile phones, accessing the internet out in the open, in pubs, restaurants, cafes, by the canal network, down by St Paul's – in fact anywhere half way popular. The reason? No cables, no cost. Birmingham's entry into a new digital era as one the country's first "wireless cities" officially got off the ground yesterday, when the long awaited Wi-Fi network was launched in a low-key sort of way by Aston Villa striker Luke Moore, who is clearly more at home with a football than with a laptop. Never mind.
The England under-21 star joined Coun Paul Tilsley, deputy leader of Birmingham City Council, and various movers and shakers from the likes of BT on a small stand in Victoria Square to kickstart a four day exhibition extolling the benefits of the new technology.
From little acorns do big trees – in this case what promises to be an electronic oak – grow.
The new network covers an area which incorporates Queensway across to Moor Street in the east. It includes New Street, Corporation Street, Victoria Square and Colmore Row. It extends out along Broad Street, Digbeth High Street and areas around Millennium Point and Aston University. That is just the start. It will expand.
It builds on BT's existing Openzone network, previously only available within range of a Wi-Fi 'hotspot'. The free bit of all this is what's curiously called birminghamfiz, claimed to be the UK's first ever openly accessible free information zone.
It enables anyone who logs onto the Openzone network in the city centre to access all manner of useful information. If you need to find a parking space, find a taxi rank, check out travel information, the locality of the nearest loo, check into birminghamfiz.
There is also info on events happening in and around the city centre – sporting events, museum exhibitions, leisure activities and so on. The site also details conferences, hotel room availability, where to find the nearest doctor, dentist, optician or pharmacist. And for good measure, there are pages of news, sport and weather.
Chris Pride, director of Digital Birmingham, the city partnership which created the service, said: "We're very excited about the potential for birminghamfiz.
"It's very much work in progress and what's available now is only the tip of the iceberg. We're actively developing phase two of birminghamfiz, which will also include music and video clips and commercial aspects such as booking tickets online.
"Birminghamfiz is a real first for Birmingham."
Coun Tilsley was just as expansive.
"Creating the wireless network is an important stepping stone on the route to establishing Birmingham as Birmingham's premier digital city by 2010. A key component of this is the truly groundbreaking fiz, the like of which has never before been seen anywhere in the UK," he said.
Grand words – but how does Brum's new Wi-Fi network actually stack up? I know from bitter personal experience, that anything new connected with innovative technology has a tendancy to bite the user.
Thankfully, fiz hits the mark.
Connecting to it is fairly simple.
If you posses a Wi-Fi ebabled laptop, PDA or mobile, simply search for wireless connections (remembering to turn on Wi-Fi first) and select btopenzone.com. Select any web page to view. This will take you to the city council and BR joint landing page. From there simply click on birminghamfiz, which gives you the main menu. And that's it.
However, if the joint landing page is unavailable just enter www.birminghamfiz.com into your browser. That has the same end effect.
Having done all of that yesterday, I trudged the length and breadth of the city centre to see if the network stood up to its claims. It did. The signal strength was more than adequate for my Ipaq in all manner of locations – outside Brindleyplace, back of the Bullring, down Corporation Street. No problems, much to the disappointment of those who, shall we say, distrust internet technology. In this instance, it works – and with feedback from users, will no doubt work even better.
Amusingly, the sight of this technology editor actually using technology to its best advantage out on the street attracted a number of bemused stares from passers-by. Get used to it – there's a lot more to come.