Wi-Fi in the city

Ashland, Ore., allows local businesses to offer public wireless Internet access through its fiber-optic backbone.

Now funded by economic grants, city wireless networks may soon provide integrators with opportunities

In early October, citizens and visitors to Athens, Ga., will enjoy free wireless network access across 24 blocks downtown. Anyone with a personal digital assistant, or handheld or laptop computer with a wireless network access card can surf the Internet or tap into Web sites of local shops.

Athens joins a number of other cities and towns that offer the public wireless online access -- sometimes free -- in specific areas of town. Other municipalities with wireless access to the Internet are Jacksonville, Fla.; Pittsburgh; Ashland, Ore.; and New York's Bryant Park district in Manhattan.

These areas are following the lead of companies such as Seattle-based Starbucks Corp., which offers wireless access in its coffee shops as a way to attract customers. Local leaders are hoping they can create vibrant business zones that draw both companies and consumers.

Establishing these community "Wi-Fi" hot spots, as they are known, is an idea that many cities and even states, such as Utah, are mulling over, said William Clark, a mobile systems research director for Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn. "The idea is to make your venues more attractive," he said.

Wi-Fi is short for wireless fidelity, the nickname given to products using the 802.11 standards for wireless transmissions.

Under this approach, public gathering places such as libraries, parks, town squares, malls, business districts and schools would be outfitted with public Internet access.

Gartner estimated that 450 Wi-Fi hot spots will spring up by the end of this year, often with multiple hot spots in a single city. Gartner expects that number to grow to 3,900 by 2005.

A community access node covering a small area, such as a library, can be set up for as little as $900, Clark said, citing a "hot spot in a box" solution offered by wireless service provider Boingo Wireless Inc., Santa Monica, Calif. Networks covering larger areas could cost tens of thousands of dollars, he said.

Most of these public wireless networks have been largely built by volunteers, either students from nearby colleges or local shops encouraged by the town's chamber of commerce. Equipment is often paid for by economic development grants or donated by equipment vendors.

However, as the practice grows more popular, future rollouts may be completed -- and funded -- by the towns and cities themselves.

"I think you will see more and more municipalities make a play in infrastructure," said James Higbe, president of Jacksonville, Fla.-based wireless integrator Connexsys Inc., which donated its services for the rollout there.

And as the footprint of these networks grows, municipalities may turn to integrators, Higbe said. Citywide coverage will require an enterprise approach, and expansions will be completed more efficiently by integrators rather than by each city individually tackling a project.

Clark said the projects in Athens and the other cities are laying the groundwork for more expansive public offerings.

"These projects really are the guinea pigs. They're put in place to find out what works and what doesn't," he said.

The economic benefits that public wireless access will bring to Athens are clear, said Scott Shamp, director of the New Media Institute, which is part of University of Georgia and oversees the town's wireless project.

By establishing standards for wireless access throughout the town, citizens will be able to freely roam through downtown with their wireless devices constantly connected to the Internet.

Shamp said that, thanks to the proliferation of low-cost wireless equipment, many small wireless zones are already set up in many cities. Numerous access points also can be found on college campuses and at coffee shops and stores.

However, users cannot roam about and maintain a wireless connection because the nodes are not standardized. Clark, for example, said he lives in an area with four different public access points, each requiring a reconfiguration of his PDA.

What municipalities such as Athens can offer is a platform for interoperability among the different Wi-Fi hot spots. By setting up citywide access, Athens establishes standards to which other parties can agree, Shamp said. It also covers those areas not deemed profitable by private business, allowing the city to offer the claim of having complete coverage.

The Athens project will cost under $75,000, Shamp said. "We joke that this is not state of the art. It is state of the Wal-Mart. It shows that the technology is ready to be used," he said.

Athens and Clarke County have donated space on light poles throughout Athens for access points, as well as power to run them. Most of the equipment used is low-cost, commercially available 802.11b and 802.11a equipment offered by vendors such as LinkSys Group Inc., Irvine, Calif.

Development money was obtained through a grant from University of Georgia and the Georgia Research Institute, a philanthropic public-private partnership that funds research projects to strengthen Georgia's economy.

The project also received donations from local businesses. Much of the work is done by local college student volunteers, though the organization hopes to hire an individual full time to run the network.

Jacksonville began offering a similar wireless network for its downtown riverfront area in August 2001.

The project is being run by several partners, said David Grant, a general manager for the Boardwalk Group. The Jacksonville company provided project management, while BellSouth Corp., Atlanta, supplied the Internet connectivity, and Connexsys did the network design and handles customer support.

Like Athens, Jacksonville hopes this wireless zone will become a template for expanding wireless access to other parts of the city, Grant said.

The wireless network also is being used as a way to bridge the digital divide. Wireless may be the most cost-effective way to provide Internet access to impoverished neighborhoods, Higbe said.

Even when a city sets the standards for a citywide wireless access, it doesn't necessarily maintain the infrastructure. Instead, a city can act as a franchiser by granting a provider rights to offer citywide public service, as is frequently done for cable television.

Pittsburgh is testing this approach. A number of neighborhood wireless access points have been set up there through a nonprofit foundation called Three Rivers Connect. Managing the network is Pittsburgh service provider Grok Technology Inc.

Although the pilot projects now under way are free for public use, a subscription fee may eventually be charged, said Danette O'Connell, Grok CEO.

Citing similar privately run network service providers in Austin, Texas, and Seattle, as well as national carriers such as Boingo and Toledo, Ohio-based Airpath Wireless Inc., O'Connell said local network providers will band together to offer their customers nationwide service, cooperating as cellular phone companies do to host each other's customers on their networks.

In this arrangement, O'Connell said Pittsburgh is a potential partner that could share in the revenue a wireless network could produce. In exchange for placing antennas on public buildings, Grok will offer the city a percentage of revenue it generates from subscribers using that access point. A courthouse with an access point, for instance, can generate revenue from visiting lawyers who need to retrieve files from their offices.

"If you put wireless access in a public building, there will be a return on investment from that one way or another," O'Connell said.

Another approach involving public-private partnerships is being employed by Ashland, Ore. Under the Ashland Unwired project, the city lets businesses offer access to their customers through the city's fiber-optic backbone, said Kristina Wurtz, spokeswoman for Project A Inc. The company is one of two Ashland network solution providers certified by the city to assist local businesses in setting up access points. The other is Open Door Networks Inc.

The Ashland Unwired project has thus far signed up 12 local businesses, ranging from the Ashland Community Hospital to the Siskiyou Brew Pub.

"Every city is taking a slightly different approach," O'Connell said.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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