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Wi-Fi lessons learned in Tempe

The Arizona city has had its ups and downs with its ambitious municipal broadband project.

TEMPE, Ariz.--Inside a coffee shop here in this sunny suburb of Phoenix, Arizona State University student Tim Hobbs was trying to connect to a citywide wireless broadband network.

No luck.

"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, 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. are being outfitted with special wireless devices, and can access a wealth of information while they're on the road. But 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."

Tempe Wi-Fi

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 and 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.

"We've had to deal with some bumps and bruises, but I'm very pleased that we did jump in when we did."
--Dave Heck, deputy IT manager, Tempe

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."

Lin believes city planners need a reality check.

"Politicians feel like they can't lose by just saying, 'We need broadband Internet for all--otherwise we will fall behind competing cities,'" he said. "But what is it that they really expect? What is the problem that they are solving? I think a lot of cities aren't quite sure what's possible and what they want."

Some of them are calling Tempe to find out. Heck said he has talked to officials from cities in Texas, Virginia, California, Florida and even New Zealand.

"I think a lot of cities aren't quite sure what's possible and what they want."
--Albert Lin, telecom analyst, American Technology Research

Tempe's neighboring cities, Gilbert and Chandler, even decided to use the Tempe model and contracted with MobilePro. "Tempe and Gilbert are similar in geography; what would serve one would logically serve them all," said Shawn Woolley, Gilbert's director of technology services.

The three networks, when completed, will cover 187 square miles, and subscribers in one city will be able to connect in all three. Deployment in Gilbert will soon begin.

"I don't think the town will use it very much in buildings. It will be fine for all the town employees that are working outside in the field," Woolley said. "It's not going to be as much of an issue for us as it will be for our customers."

The Tempe model is likely to be used in eight cities where MobilePro has contracts. But the company in Sacramento, Calif., when the city and the company could not agree on a business model for the network.

Sacramento officials suggested that the service would be financed by advertisements, a solution MobilePro did not find viable without subsidies from the city. When Sacramento said no, the company withdrew the offer, according to the city and company.

As in Tempe, MobilePro planned to offer free 56Kbps service in a limited area in the center of the city. Sacramento looked at the Wi-Fi plans of other cities. "If that's acceptable to Tempe that's their call," said Stephen Ferguson, chief information officer of Sacramento's IT department. "Our city council wants 300Kbps free access citywide, and we see it happening in San Francisco, Portland and Philadelphia."

Tempe's largest neighbor, Phoenix, is also planning a wireless network and is watching what happens in its suburb, said Kristine Sigfridson, chief information officer of Phoenix's IT department.

Phoenix officials have already decided not to build a border-to-border network, because most of the city has access to affordable cable broadband. "We are having a hard time justifying why we would partner to implement and support a whole infrastructure of unproven technology when there is something that is working very well now," Sigfridson said.

She is skeptical that dial-up speed would be appealing, and doesn't think enough people are willing to pay for wireless service to make it worth a contractor's investment. "They've got to make money doing it," Sigfridson said. "Nobody's been successful with that yet." Instead, Phoenix will finance free high-speed wireless access inside city facilities such as the airport, convention center and libraries.

But don't count out Wi-Fi projects like Tempe's quite yet. Craig Mathias, a wireless technology analyst at the Farpoint Group, thinks that while some municipal projects may sputter for a time, ultimately Wi-Fi will only gain popularity.

"I don't think we're going to see a wholesale movement from wired to wireless straightaway," Mathias said. "But I think a lot of people ultimately will end up using Wi-Fi as primary broadband access."

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