June 29, 2006 4:00 AM PDT
Wi-Fi lessons learned in Tempe
"It told me I have no connectivity," said Hobbs, pecking at his laptop computer. Sitting next to him, Hobbs' friend Josh Bahner suggested the network doesn't even exist. "I live down the street, and I know for a fact that I can't get a signal there," he said.
It does exist, whether Tempe residents know it or not. In fact, the city's Wi-Fi project is already further along than most other municipal projects designed to offer broadband Internet access. And cities ranging from Anaheim, Calif., which is scheduled to unveil its Wi-Fi network Thursday, to Philadelphia would do well to study what has gone wrong and right for Tempe's ambitious project.
Two years ago, city planners decided to offer Wi-Fi to Tempe's 160,000 residents. Without using any tax dollars, they wanted to roll broadband service over the city's 40 square miles and tap into a Wi-Fi network for its city services.
Now with the wireless network up and running since the end of February, city workers seem to be its biggest fans. Fire command vehicles are being outfitted with special wireless devices, and police cruisers can access a wealth of information while they're on the road. But the average residents who were also supposed to benefit aren't using it very much--at least so far.
And that has some city officials, who knew from the outset that their Wi-Fi project was going to be a learning experience, in some ways disappointed but also still hopeful about the prospects for the network.
"Someone's got to jump in first," said Dave Heck, deputy information technology manager for Tempe. "We've had to deal with some bumps and bruises, but I'm very pleased that we did jump in when we did. I think that, in the long term, we will be ahead of everyone else."
To get the project up and running, Tempe officials partnered with MobilePro, a company that provides telecom and Internet access services around the U.S. The outcome was MobilePro's first citywide Internet network and, when it went live, the largest municipal Wi-Fi network in the U.S.
More than 700 light poles in the city have been equipped with antenna-adorned metal boxes containing transmitters and receivers, or access points. They transfer Internet data at download speeds that at this point can reach 1Mbps (megabit per second) and upload speeds of 384Kbps (kilobits per second). The wireless boxes are nodes connected in a mesh network called WAZ (Wireless Access Zone) Tempe, supporting the common Wi-Fi standards, 802.11a, b and g, which can be accessed from devices such as computers and cellular phones.
While some citywide networks are subsidized, no tax dollars have been used in Tempe. MobilePro invested an estimated $3 million to get the network up and running, according to the company. The city merely provides the permit to mount access points on utility poles and the electricity to keep them running.
MobilePro handles the setup, deployment and maintenance of the network. Residents can tap into it by paying $29.95 per month, $8.95 per day or $3.95 per hour. A free, 56Kbps service, equivalent to dial-up speed, is available in a small downtown area for two hours a day.
As part of the deal, free access is provided for all city services. Tempe's police and fire departments have already mounted antennas on their vehicles and have begun communicating over the network. Plans are under way to video monitor traffic and public events, to control traffic lights, and to give building inspectors and water personnel Wi-Fi access in the field.
But Tempe residents are having a harder time taking advantage of the network. Poor indoor coverage is the biggest complaint, Heck said. Only a small percentage of the population gets indoor signals strong enough to connect.
As a result, Heck has had to dampen public expectations--objectives he shared when the network was started. "One of the city's goals was to provide an alternative broadband to the residents other than cable," he said, "so obviously we felt like this would be something that the residents could get at their desk, in their house."
Outdoor access also has its challenges. To improve spotty coverage, more than 100 additional access points have been put up since the launch in February. But MobilePro is still filling in dead spots.
The company is hoping for a subscription rate of at least 20 percent of Tempe's 160,000 inhabitants. In April, there were only 650 users. Since then, no new numbers have been revealed, other than in a press release proclaiming "double-digit monthly percentage growth."
Jerry Sullivan, president and chief operating officer of MobilePro, said he doesn't want to reveal how many subscribers are needed to make ends meet but that he isn't worried about the network's profitability. "It's a fairly lucrative business" after you make back initial costs, he said.
Sullivan believes sales will take off at the end of July, with the release of a device that consumers can buy to amplify the signal indoors. It will be sold by retailers which will market the wireless access in packages with additions like phone and TV services over the Internet.
Tempe's Wi-Fi experience--good and bad--isn't unique. Albert Lin, a telecom analyst at American Technology Research, said many citywide wireless networks are running behind schedule.
"For cities that are promising their taxpayers they are going to have broadband Internet in the next year or two, I would say all of them are going to prove disappointing," Lin said. Spotty coverage, fluctuating bandwidth and poor indoor connections are all problems. "It just won't be considered what most people would find to be a good grade of service."
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