Mixed Signals - City WiFi Battles Bumps, Budget Overruns
One big setback: leaves on trees interfere with reception
By LAURA SCHREIER, Hartford Business Journal Staff Writer
August 20, 2007
Although it targeted just two Hartford neighborhoods, the city’s wireless test program has already encountered snags and slipped over its planned budget.
Hartford currently provides wireless Internet access downtown to a largely commuter workforce, and in Blue Hills, a neighborhood with a much less computer-savvy population.
Eric Jackson, public information officer, records no major hiccups with downtown’s free coverage — aside from what he judges to be “skimpy” coverage in Bushnell Park. But Blue Hills has been more troublesome.
An original 50 wireless nodes were placed around the neighborhood in late October, Jackson said, but the then-bare trees have since put on their usual thicket of leaves and helped block wireless signals.
Partly because of those foliage issues, Jackson’s department had to add 15 more wireless nodes around the neighborhood. The city also had to purchase signal-boosting devices from Ruckus Wireless to put in users’ homes, a move that planners hope to avoid in the future.
The extra work has helped push the cost of the pilot program over its $1 million budget by about $125,000, Jackson said.
About 6,000 unique accounts have been set up with the service, and the city recorded 822 users in July, said John Robinson, Hartford’s manager of support services. That’s an improvement over the 500 or 600 users that logged on in the early months, he said. City officials expect the added equipment will bump the numbers up further.
Many Munis Puzzled
Hartford wasn’t alone in underestimating the equipment it would need – other large cities such as Minneapolis are struggling to maintain coverage as well as either pay for the service or make it profitable.
That’s partly why Hartford’s program is moving slowly on its plans to provide wireless coverage citywide, Jackson said.
“We’re watching what other cities do. Everybody’s watching everybody,” he said.
When Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez announced plans to start the pilot program, the idea was to spend $6 million over three years to make all of Hartford wireless. The pilot program, in its two neighborhoods, was going to charge users $20 a month for unlimited access. It was expected that user-generated revenue would help pay to build service in the rest of the city.
So far, Hartford wireless is still free and likely to remain so, Jackson said — in the months since the $20-a-month plan was announced, commercial wireless service prices dipped below that rate. And the city still needs to focus getting more people logged on, he said, not on charging those already on board.
Esme Vos, founder of information site Muniwireless.com, reports that some cities do build and operate their own systems, but it’s rare for them to do so free of charge.
Jack Vose, municipal services provider for MetroHartford Alliance, said he wonders how the city will sustain the program over time. How, for example, will it pay for maintaining and updating equipment?
“Sometimes it raises more questions than answers,” he said.
Many municipalities that jump on the wireless idea don’t have a good strategic plan laid out for the long-term, Vose said, although he’s heard no complaints about Hartford’s process thus far.
Most municipalities enter into third-party agreements, hiring private companies such as Earthlink to build and operate their systems. In the past these companies did the work for free, expecting advertising revenue to make up their costs; more recently they’ve required cities to put up their own money for the work after ad revenues proved unreliable.
Manchester plans to explore the third-party options in its pursuit of town-wide wirelessness, said public information officer Jack McCoy. Manchester’s downtown district went wireless several years ago with funding from area merchants, but now McCoy wants to spread connectivity throughout the city using WiMAX, a wireless technology that he says has a much broader range than typical Wi-Fi nodes. Wi-Fi covers about 150 feet, he said, but WiMAX covers a square mile.
The town is already planning to install WiMAX nodes around a school and Police Athletic League complex to give the technology a test run.
Jackson said Hartford was better able to stay free of third-party agreements because it has underground fiberlink cables linking up most of the city already — with that kind of infrastructure in place, the city could afford to act more independently.
Hartford’s small size helps out there, he said. It would be much tougher to build out wireless nodes with a sprawling metropolis and no fiberlink system already in place.
Instead of a revenue-generator, the city’s wireless will be more service-oriented. Jackson plans to eventually roll out real-time e-government, where residents and businesses can conduct business with the city online.
But again, Jackson cautions patience. He expects the pilot program to wrap up by the end of the month, and intends to publish its results online. Part of the struggle now is to get more residents trained and knowledgeable about the system: “People weren’t quite ready for it,” he said.