Cities deploying Wi-Fi face challenges

Cities already offering Wi-Fi service to residents struggle in the early days to meet users' bandwidth and reliability expectations.

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.

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.

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