Need for speed satisfied with free Wi-fi

150 150 Cheryl Getuiza

Internet access is a key element to any city’s infrastructure, something Riverside and now San Jose is taking note of (Photo Credit: Florian)

It’s known as the innovation capital of the world—the Silicon Valley is certainly that. Many of the world’s top technology companies call the region home like Google, Apple, Intel, Yahoo and Cisco, to name a few.

The City of San Jose is now catering to its tech savvy residents and businesses by offering a new free outdoor wireless Internet access downtown. Remember, that line from the 80’s movie, Top Gun, with Tom Cruise, “I feel the need, the need for speed?” Well, you can get that in San Jose.

“As the Capital of Silicon Valley, San Jose is proud to help bring this advanced outdoor Wi-Fi technology to everyone who lives, works, and visits our downtown,” said Mayor Chuck Reed.

Past efforts, like hot spots, weren’t successful as partner companies had business models that were unsustainable and advances in consumer technology, like smartphones and tablets, were faster than the WiFi infrastructure’s capabilities.

“For the downtown community, this is a major win-for the families who live here, students who go to school here, for the local businesses and their employees who can engage in their work outdoors, for restaurants with outdoor dining, and for visitors who can use the Wickedly fast W-iFi to explore our dynamic, forward thinking city,” said councilmember Sam Liccardo.

This service is offered thanks to a public/private partnership with two outdoor companies.  Ruckus Wireless and SmartWAVE Technologies have been working hard eight months prior getting the infrastructure up to date including replacing networks.

The result? We’re told it’s the fastest of its kind in North America, in fact, the city has dubbed it “Wickedly Fast WiFi.”

How fast, you ask? According to the city’s acting chief information officer, Vijay Sammeta, “it’s like going from 300 miles per hour to 10,000 miles per hour.”

Sammeta said users could expect to see 10Mbps of download speed. To compare, you’re probably getting just over 1Mbps at Starbucks.

The city will also be using the network to connect some city operations located outside City Hall and to improve the speed of transactions on downtown pay-to-park meters.

Because of the partnerships, the city didn’t have to shell out a lot of money–$94,000 for infrastructure and a $22,000 annual operating expense.

“The Wickedly Fast Wi-Fi Network will bring to life the City’s vision of reliable, free Wi-Fi. It’s also the first step in building a community area network that supports government, business, and the public’s needs through a single infrastructure,” said Sammeta.

Other cities, throughout California, offer free Wi-Fi.  Some are successful, yet others have had to pull the plug.

The City of Riverside, dubbed the city of arts and innovation, has offered free wi-fi since 2007, after it entered into a contract with AT&T to deliver a free citywide wireless network.

In 2010, AT&T ended that contract, so the city partnered with U.S. Internet to support and maintain the network.

The speed there? 1 Mbps and lower.

Providing this free service is costly. “The annual operating costs are budgeted at approximately $800,000 a year–depending on the maintenance costs, actual expenditures for electricity, maintenance, and support,” said Assistant city manager, Deanna Lorson, who oversees Information technology.

With any system, there are some problems.

“U.S. Internet continues to fine tune the network, but the city’s 311 call center, councilmembers and SmartRiverside receive calls form citizens when they experience issues. When AT&T began the Wi-fi network, their goal was a 95 percent build-out, however the network only 55 of the city’s 83 square miles. Also trees can disrupt service and those living in a high population density area receive much lower speeds due to increased use of the service,” said Lorson.

The city has been offering this service for some time, is it in danger of shutting down? The short answer is no.

“Since technology changes at a rapid pace, the system is getting old and at some point the network will need to be replaced, turned over to a third party or shut down. Keeping the current system alive will eventually become cost prohibitive. But the city will always explore other possibilities should they become available.”

Like with any big infrastructure project, figuring out the financing and scope are keys to a successful buildout.

“Other cities looking to implement a free Wi-Fi system need to truly understand Wi-Fi prior to making the commitment. Cities need to determine if the system should encompass the entire city or a portion of it, like San Jose, and determine who the targeted audience is for the network. The capital investment could be a large cost, like infrastructure improvements,” said Lorson.


Cheryl Getuiza

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