May 1, 2006 9:21 AM PDT

Cities deploying Wi-Fi face challenges

The number of cities interested in building their own wireless networks is on the rise, but judging from the few cities that have begun offering service, deploying a citywide Wi-Fi network is more complicated than it may first appear.

Citywide Wi-Fi networks built and managed either in partnership with a private company or by a city have come into vogue in the past couple of years, despite strong opposition and aggressive lobbying by phone companies and cable operators, which argue that city governments would compete unfairly against their own broadband services.

Proposed networks in large cities such as Philadelphia, New Orleans and San Francisco have stirred the political pot even more. As a result, several states including Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Nebraska and Pennsylvania have passed legislation to restrict cities from building these networks.

But many cities that want to provide affordable or free broadband access to residents have pushed forward anyway. Recently, federal lawmakers have taken up the cause on behalf of municipalities, including language in a bill that passed through the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week that will override these state laws and prevent further laws from being enacted that prevent cities from building their own broadband networks.

It is not surprising that cities wanting to offer their residents high-speed Internet access would choose technology based on the IEEE 802.11 standard, otherwise known as Wi-Fi. Since Wi-Fi operates in an unlicensed band of spectrum, nobody has to dish out millions of dollars to buy access to air waves. And because Wi-Fi is so pervasive--just about every laptop sold today comes equipped with the technology--equipment used to deliver these networks is relatively cheap. What's more putting radios on utility poles and lamp posts is much less expensive than digging up streets to lay fiber optic cable.

Municipal broadband nationwide
Muni broadband and wireless projects map
An updated look at government-sponsored projects designed to provide fiber-optic or wireless service to municipal communities.

But getting a Wi-Fi network to work and meet users' expectations for speed and reliability is no easy task.

"We weren't as successful in the beginning as we thought we should have been," said Gary Van Eyll, mayor of Chaska, Minn., a small city that started offering its service to residents more than two years ago. "There were some problems with the initial setup that caused some pockets of the community to run so slowly they couldn't even access the Internet. My house is in one of those pockets, and it was frustrating."

Chaska, a town of about 8,500 households, has been offering wireless broadband over its Wi-Fi network to residents for $16.99 a month with download speeds of between 750Kbps and 1.2Mbps. Today, the city services about 2,500 homes and businesses, or almost a third of the town.

From the beginning the service worked well for about 75 percent of the residents, said Dave Pokorney, city manager for Chaska. But for the other 25 percent, the city's networks struggled to provide adequate signal strength.

CONTINUED: In-home performance issues…
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Stick to public spaces
Here in San Francisco, the population is general pretty wealthy. I am not sure who exactly is demanding (in a here's-my-money sense) city Wi-Fi.

If the goal is to help poorer residents, it should be designed as such. Offer Wi-Fi in public spaces, like parks and libraries, which are the proper place for city services.

Taxpayer-funded Wi-Fi in business or residential areas is a waste. Nobody is demanding it; otherwise it would have already been built.
Posted by ORinSF (57 comments )
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City Wifi
Dunedin Florida has a company that is trying to setup a city wide wifi and had a hard time with the local power company using their power polls. I think it has been resolved and they should be complete in 6 months. The city government gets the service free.
Posted by wnew813 (5 comments )
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Robust or inexpensive? There's the rub
Let's face it - when my neighbor's cheap analog 2.4 GHz cordless phone knocks down my WLAN, it's probably a sign that this isn't a city-wide solution. There's too much other stuff going on in the ISM band. Of course, there's no market penetration of any of the other WLAN standards (even 802.11a, which operates in the less crowded 5.8GHz band, but faces propagation problems as a result), so cities looking to implement "cheap" city-wide WLANs are caught - a more robust solution is expensive and has no penetration; the 802.11b/g solution is inexpensive, but not robust. What is it going to cost the city to try to support a city-wide 802.11b/g network that goes down every time someone picks up the phone?
Posted by nextcube (27 comments )
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Technology fitting the mission....
Effectively 3 channels and a fixed power level makes WiFi quite unsuitable for this mission.

WiMAX however, fits that mission. Please refer to CommDesigns excellent acticle:
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Posted by stigskov (4 comments )
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San Francisco has gone with Google Earthlink for political reasons
Municipal solutions have not been considered.

Rhere's a lot of hype but no pilots were even required before selecting the top vendor.

Expectations need to be reset and cities need to hold vendors to high standards of privacy.

See my blog for more on the issue

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Posted by kimocrossman (31 comments )
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Bangalore to wait. Pune, Are you ready?
I'm not too sure whether Pune (India) is ready for this. I see similar political and technical problems arising out here too. But having said that, it is good that its getting started in its early stages of technological makeover (bcos there are rarely any big tech communities out here).
And i find, probably this was the reason bangalore was restrained from the choice for implementing Wi-Fi. The user community is as good as the silicon valley (and it is growing at a rapid pace). Considering all this, I think even the internet laws are yet to mature to handle such a kind of open network.
Posted by pradeep.vijayakumar (1 comment )
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