Wi-Fi in the city

Now funded by economic grants, city wireless networks may soon provide<@SM> 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.
<>
SIZE="2">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.
<>
SIZE="2">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.
<>
SIZE="2">"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.
<>
SIZE="2">"Every city is taking a slightly different approach," O'Connell said. *
Staff Writer Joab Jackson can be reached at

jjackson@postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

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

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