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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. "We do see some variation in speed among customers," he said. "And that has been something we've struggled with from the beginning. At one time we were seeing people getting signals of 250Kbps, and someone six houses down was getting 1.2Mbps. That just wasn't acceptable."

About six months ago, the city upgraded all the radios in its network with newer models. Since then, Pokorney said service has improved dramatically.

While upgrades to the network were always a part of the business plan for the network, Pokorney admitted the city had hoped to keep its initial network installation in place for at least four years. But the initial lackluster performance of the network forced the city to upgrade only two years into its four-year plan.

"We would have rather not upgraded when we did," he said. "But at the same time, we are a little ahead of our subscription targets. So our revenue stream is a slightly better than we had expected. We're still comfortable with the idea that the network will be self-supporting."

Other communities deploying Wi-Fi citywide have experienced similar in-home performance issues. More than a month after it launched its citywide Wi-Fi network, some residents in St. Cloud, Fla., complained that they weren't able to connect to the service from inside their houses.

The problems that residents in St. Cloud have experienced are common in citywide wireless deployments, said Becca Vargo Daggett, director of the municipal telecom project for the Institute for Local and Self-Reliance.

The network works fine outdoors, but when people try to access it from inside their homes, the signal is often too weak to reach them.

"Wi-Fi in an outdoor setting is a proven application of the technology," said Vargo Daggett. "But adjustments need to be made to make sure the technology works indoors."

Chaska offers residents a wireless bridge device that sits in their home and boosts the signal. The device comes as part of the $16.99 per month service. Since St. Cloud's service is free, the city has recommended that residents buy a wireless bridge, which they can purchase at city hall for $170. Some of the residents complaining of poor reception haven't installed the wireless bridge, Vargo Daggett noted.

"A lot of the problems and complaints can be solved by managing users' expectations, so that they are aware that some tweaking needs to be done," she said.

Critics of San Francisco's plans to build a citywide Wi-Fi network have also voiced concerns that the wireless network, which will be built by EarthLink and Google, will not penetrate inside buildings adequately enough to be considered true "universal" coverage for city residents.

Chris Vein, executive director of the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services for San Francisco, said when he announced the winning bid early last month that indoor use would be discussed with Google and EarthLink. "As we negotiate the deal we will push for universal affordable access...as close as we can to" reaching throughout every building, he said.

Pokorney of Chaska said that improvements in wireless technology and management tools should make many of the issues Chaska faced easier to deal with in the future. Still, he cautions cities to think hard about their decision to build their own Wi-Fi network.

"I've heard a lot of city officials say they want to have a Wi-Fi network," he said. "They don't know why they need it, but they want it. My advice to them is that the technology should fit the mission rather than the mission fitting the technology. There are places where Wi-Fi would be great, but there are also places where it's probably not the best answer."