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GovTech Covers Famous Free Wi-Fi in Oklahoma

Ponca City's free Wi-Fi has attracted attention over the years. A recent article in Government Technology focuses on the free Wi-Fi service and reveals the secret behind Ponca City's jewel - their municipal fiber network. 

From the article:

So what makes Ponca City’s wireless network a long-term success, and what suggestions do city officials have for other areas that want to replicate it?

It all starts with fiber, said Technology Services Director Craige Baird and City Manager Craig Stephenson. But fiber’s price tag stops many local governments in their tracks, especially when they want to do it in a year instead of building a network out slowly over a number of years.

As we reported earlier this year, Pona City's wireless is supported and funded by its fiber network. The community began the incremental installation in 1997, adding more each year; the network is now over 350 miles long. Revenue from commercial customers supply the funds for the wireless mesh network.

Residents can use the basic service for free and a modest investment optimizes their access:

While the network can be accessed by wireless-enabled devices throughout the city, residents can install a Wi-Fi modem in their house to receive a stronger signal indoors. The optional modem, called a Pepwave, costs about $150 and comes set up to connect to the free public network. The city got local computer stores to stock and support the devices, and in so doing, helped those businesses.

The service has also had wider reaching benefits:

During the recent recession, the $30 to $70 per month residents had previously paid to commercial Internet service providers stayed in Ponca City, helping “churn the economy,” Stephenson said.

In addition, Stephenson and Baird cited the network as a huge benefit to the schools and career technology center to help train and keep students in the area for economic development. Eighth-graders up through high school have electronic textbooks, laptops or notebooks, said Stephenson, “and that was only possible because everyone inside the city limits has Internet access.”

Richmond Neighborhood Gets Free Wi-Fi in California

Residents in the Iron Triangle neighborhood of Richmond are now receiving free Wi-Fi as part of a new pilot program. The pilot, sponsored by Building Blocks for Kids (BBK), hopes to make Internet access widely available to the many local families who cannot afford it. New towers have been placed on local homes to extend access to approximately 400 houses.

BBK is a collaborative of 30 government agencies, nonprofit groups and community leaders. The pilot project is funded by a $500,000 grant from the California Emerging Technology Fund to address digital literacy in areas of Richmond where affordable Internet access is not readily available.

A recent Contra Cost Times article covered the story. According to the article, an Internet connection tower is mounted on local resident, Yolanda Lopez's roof:

The Internet tower installed on Lopez's house receives signals from Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization that has a 40-foot tower at 2512 Florida Ave. Lopez's transmitter sends free Internet signals for a radius of a few hundred yards, providing the web to dozens of neighbors, said Internet Archive engineer Ralf Muehlen.

The ongoing costs to provide the signal, now that the hardware is in place, is "negligible," Muehlen said.

By summer, BBK partners hope to outfit 20 houses in the Iron Triangle with signal towers, providing free high-speed Internet signals to more than 400 homes, said BBK Executive Director Jennifer Lyle. A second tower has already been installed at a home in Atchison Village, Lyle said.

The BBK press release notes that several public and private entities worked together to enhance the Wi-fi service:

Because of the technical skills of collaborative member ReliaTech and the IT infrastructure expertise of City of Richmond’s Department of Information Technology, low-income Richmond residents will have access to wi-fi at an impressive 12-16 megabits per second.

The neighborhood of just under 20,000 has had problems with high rates of crime for many years. A 2013 survey reflects that residents of the neighborhood are not embracing connectivity because it is too expensive for them. The results of the survey are part of a larger study from BBK examining home Internet access and usage in the Iron Triangle neighborhood. The study indicates that one-third of local residents do not have access at home and 40% do not own a working computer.

The grant has also allowed BBK to distribute 1,000 free refurbished computers and provide training to over 900 families.

Lopez told the Times:

"All my neighbors are coming up and thanking me for the free Internet," Lopez said in Spanish. "A lot of people can't pay $50 per month."

Santa Monica City Net Case Study

Publication Date: 
March 5, 2014
Author(s): 
Eric Lampland
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell

Santa Monica has built a fiber network called City Net that has lowered its own costs for telecommunications, helped to retain businesses, and attracted new businesses to the community. Built incrementally without debt, it offers a roadmap any community can draw lessons from.

Unlike the majority of municipal fiber networks, Santa Monica does not have a municipal power provider – City Net is run out of the Information Systems Department. The vision for the network and its expansion was created in the Telecommunications Master Plan in 1998, standardizing the procedure that we now call “dig once.” Careful mapping and clever foresight laid the foundation for growth.

Vidalia's Broadband Initiative Moves Forward as Free Wi-Fi Comes to Town

Vidalia's plans to offer free Wi-Fi are becoming reality. The Natchez Democrat recently reported that the City launched its free Wi-Fi in its new municipal complex.

Vidalia received a $30,000 grant from the Telecommunications Development Fund (TDF) Foundation to invest in a wireless network to cover the complex. Apparently, visitors to the complex were often surprised to learn that there was no Wi-Fi available. From the article:

[Mayor Hyram] Copeland said the project came about after multiple teams coming to participate in tournaments at the recreation complex asked about Wi-Fi access.

“I was embarrassed to say, ‘No,’ but now I can say we do,” Copeland said. “But the end result of all this is that we will have moved this community forward.”

The next step will be free Wi-Fi along the City's riverfront.

Even though federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to Louisiana were pulled back, Vidalia decided to press on with its broadband plans. The City has since cultivated several grant sources and is piecing together the funds needed to proceed with its estimated $9 million fiber network. Vidalia wants to develop a smart-grid and potentially provide fiber to every premise.

The community, with some of the highest unemployment rates in the country, sees the presence of better broadband as critical to economic survival. From the article:

“Broadband is such a routine infrastructure for companies nowadays that they almost assume you have it, and us not having it could have hurt us in the long run,” [Concordia Parish Economic Development Director Heather] Malone said. “Now, we’ll be able to use this as a tool to recruit new businesses and offer it to our existing businesses.”

Ponca City Fiber: Serving Businesses, Schools, and Offering Free Wi-Fi

Its extensive free Wi-Fi has brought Ponca City into the limelight but the mesh network did not appear overnight. The community effort began with miles of fiber network that provide connectivity and enable the mesh network financially and technically.

Ponca City, home to 25,000, is located on Oklahoma's north central border; Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Wichita are all more than 90 miles away. The petroleum industry flourished in Ponca City until the oil bust in the 1990s and the population began to decline as workers moved away. Community leaders sought ways to salvage the local economy through economic development. They began to focus on the technology, manufacturing, and service industries.

The municipal electric department, Ponca City Energy, installed the first five miles of fiber in 1997 and five more in 1999 to connect outlying municipal buildings to City Hall. Line crews from the utility and the City Technology Services Department handled all installation to keep expenses down. The City continued to add to the network incrementally, exapanding it to over 350 miles. The network also serves the City's SCADA system.

In 2003, Ponca City Energy connected the local schools, and the Ponca City Medical Center to the network. The network also began providing Internet to the University Learning Center of Northern Oklahoma, now named the University Center at Ponca City. The Center collaborates with thirteen higher education institutions to provide distance learning in 48 online degree programs.

Ponca City eventually began offering Internet access via the fiber to commercial customers. According to Craige Baird, Technology Services Director, most businesses in the community purchase Internet access from the City. Revenue from commercial Internet customers, approximately $36,000 per month, pays for the wireless mesh network.

In 2008, Ponca City installed the wireless network for the City's public safety entities. The wireless complement allowed employees in the field to immediately transfer information that in the past required a drive back to the office. In addition to police and fire, employees such as electrical linemen, ambulance attendents, and code enforcement officers use the network. The City connected 25 percent of its 500 wireless routers to the fiber optic network, creating a robust mesh with ample bandwidth over 150 square miles. The City chose to use the excess bandwidth to provide free Wi-Fi to the public.

Wi-Fi logo

City officials estimate the network saves residents almost $4 million a year in Internet fees. Over 17,000 people use the free service, allowing them to keep more dollars in the local economy. The Wi-fi speeds range from 7 - 12 Mbps download. The network will support the community's upcoming technology plan to supply laptops and tablets for students. 

The City has also implemented a virtual desktop solution, allowing city employees to access their desktop from any Internet connection. To insure redundancy, the City has mutual fiber lines between its server rooms and its Disaster Recovery site, located miles away. The City received a 2013 Municipal Innovations Award from the Oklahoma Municipal League for its infrastructure and disaster recovery. From the Oklahoma Municipal League announcement:

Overall, Ponca City has started the technology move over twelve years ago with the first installation of fiber optic cable. But now that basic installation has grown to provide the backbone for an entire network that provides services not only to the employees but to the citizens and businesses in Ponca City. Technology will continue to be an important part of Ponca City’s future.

Colorado and Mississippi Test White Space Technology

We recently reported on the WhiteSpaces Pilot Project from the Gigabit Libraries Network (GLN). In order to find out the results in the trenches, we contacted two participant communities: Delta County, Colorado and Pascagoula, Mississippi.

The project connects libraries with vendors that supply equipment tapping into what has been television spectrum, or "white spaces." A Wi-Fi signal travels farther on white space spectrum and can travel through obstacles such as buildings and trees. 

The five libraries in the Delta County Libraries system serve a community of approximately 30,000 people. Most residents live on farms or in small towns scattered throughout the county. The libraries all offer free Wi-Fi and serve as places to socialize, connect, and hold community meetings. Library District staff installed the equipment in the library in Paonia, population 1,500.

TDS Telecom and Skybeam offer limited Internet access in the area, but many people do not live in the service areas or cannot afford the steep rates. John Gavan, IT Manager of the Libraries system, predicts that 90% of visits to the facilities focus on Internet access.

When the Delta County Library in Paonia closes down every night, the parking lot is usually filled with people tapping into the library's free Wi-Fi. The GLN WhiteSpaces Pilot went live in Paonia in October 2013. The library's Wi-Fi now sends a signal down the main street in town. They recently created a second hotspot to extend free Wi-Fi even farther. The community hopes to transmit the signal to a park located one mile from the library so summer festival vendors can to use the Wi-Fi for credit card transactions.

Gavan describes the technology as an easy set-up with minimal tech support from the vendor. The terrain in Delta County includes significant hills and trees. The ability to send the signal through obstacles is a major plus in Paonia, where the terrain can be challenging. As an IT Manager, he especially appreciates the ability to monitor and manage the white space network from any Internet connection.

The pilot project will run through 2013. Delta County Libraries will then have the option to purchase the equipment or to return it to the vendor. In Paonia, the equipment will cost approximately $5,800. According to Gavan, it is a small price to pay for the benefit the community receives from the technology.

Unfortunately, tough economic times have negatively impacted budgets in Paonia and Delta County. A proposed mill levy that would have paid for the equipment did not pass. One of the area's major employers - a coal mining facility - announced it will soon be closing down. The loss of jobs will remove $400 million worth of income from the region and community leaders are understandably concerned. Gavan and the Delta County Libraries have launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to keep the equipment. They realize access to the Internet will be even more crucial as people search for employment.

Pascagoula Mississippi logol

In Pascagoula, Mississippi, the School District is also a pilot project participant. In addition to extending the school's Wi-Fi, the coastal community will explore public safety uses. Pascagoula was affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and community leaders are considering white space technology for disaster readiness preparation.

Pascagoula also plans to use the technology to replace a DSL connection to their Adult Learning Center. According to Toby Bradley, School District Network Administrator, the connection will triple the bandwidth and save approximately $200 per month in service charges. Bradley notes:

We approached the pilot a bit differently than the other applicants, in that we were looking at rapid and easy deployment for both permanent and portable connections at a variety of locations that we cannot justify permanent Internet connections to our fiber network or the high cost of leasing services from an ISP on a regular basis. 

As time goes on, we will discover more sites, and expand our TVWS equipment inventory. It fills a niche between very expensive dedicated links, or expensive service contracts. We have also worked on simplifying setup and teardown, and we can have a remote site up and running in less than 10 minutes. Testing remote locations has allowed us to pre-program locations, sources of electrical power, antenna positioning, etc. 

Badley describes the technology as promising but notes that performance levels are inconsistent. He sees a fair degree of trial and error as the community learns the limits of the technology.

For more on the GLN WhiteSpaces Pilot Project, listen to Christopher interview Don Means in Episode 79 of the Broadband Bits podcast.

White Space Pilot Project Brings Basic Internet From Library to Residents … For Free!

The Gigabit Libraries Network (GLN) has orchestrated a pilot project to optimize white space technology for connectivity in and near community libraries and schools. We discussed this approach on our most recent podcast with Don Means, coordinator of the project.

White spaces wireless, sometimes referred to as "Super Wi-Fi" or "TVWS," can provide limited access in rural areas with limited funds and limited connectivity options. The technology is still in the development stage but creative people working in community libraries are finding new ways to use it.

GLN's goal is to bring next generation connectivity to all 16,000 libraries in the U.S. The organization grew out the 2007 "Fiber to the Library" Campaign from the Community TeleStructure Initiative. The initiative is a collaboration of institutions of higher education, corporations serving the higher education technology market, and related entities. GLN advances the idea that anchor networks, like those at the library, are cost effective ways to serve populations and to create middle mile access.

"White spaces" are the unlicensed low-frequency spectrum that was reserved for television signals prior to digitization of television. (If you are REALLY old, like me, you remember the "UHF" and "VHF" dials on the ol' black-and-white.) As we transitioned to digital TV, the spectrum was abandoned. White spaces differ from traditional point-to-point wireless spectrum because they do not require a line of sight. Buildings, trees, or other obstacles do not stop the signals. Thurman, New York, and New Hanover County in North Carolina use white space technology for limited Internet access in their areas.

White space technology is not a replacement for next generation high-speed networks but can operate as a complement to an existing connection, expanding the reach of a library's free Wi-Fi. The network is not mobile but can be used for a nomadic fixed wireless remote as on a bookmobile. Early testing of pilot networks indicates the signal provides an average of 5 Mbps from the anchor station throughout the hotspot, depending on the conditions. The technology provides a basic level of service for email and web surfing. Users cannot stream video or use bandwidth hungry applications but when a user has no other access, "The value of the first Mbps is worth more than the next ninety-nine," says Don Means, GLN Coordinator.

GLN published an open call in July 2013 to libraries seeking proposals for innovative uses for white space technology. Sixty communities submitted proposals, surprising them by the volume and creativity of proposals. GLN considered a variety of factors, including innovative ideas that would benefit the community, the presence of access to backhaul to support the Wi-Fi, and accessibility of Internet access.

Humbolt County Library

Ultimately, they chose six respondents to participate, including the Humbolt County Library in California; the Skokie Public Library in Illinois; Pascagoula, Mississippi; Delta County Libraries in Colorado; the University of New Hampshire WhiteSpace Consortium; and several libraries in the Kansas City, Kansas Public Library System. When the pilot is complete the libraries will have the option to purchase the equipment or to return it to the vendor. Prices vary from $5,000 - $8,000 for a base station and one to three remote location equipment packages. The Paonia, Colorado, library has created a kickstarted campaign to raise the funds for purchasing the equipment. 

White space is not yet available for commercial use, making it ideal for a pilot project. Unlike traditional Wi-Fi, white space technology requires cognitive radios to function. There are three FCC Certified TVWS Databases: iconnectiv, SpectrumBridge, and Google. When a device is activated, it connects with one of those databases to find available channels. Each device must be certified with one of those databases to access a chanel. At this point, there are no vendors that have certification for the equipment they provide. Once the vendors receive certification from the FCC, commercial use will follow. 

According to GLN, the distance between many U.S. library branches is consistent with the reach of white space technology, approximately five miles. If plans to connect them all include schools as base stations or remotes, much of the United States could have access to free, basic Wi-Fi Internet access.

The idea of reserving some of this spectrum for public use has been debated. The idea of an extensive free "network of networks"  sounds radical at first blush. Here is Harold Feld and his Tales of the Sausage Factory blog:

Hmmm . . . . a best effort “network of networks” voluntarily exchanging traffic through the use of common protocols . . . that sounds vaguely familiar.  Why yes, that’s the Internet! The “network of networks” that runs on best efforts. And some of us are old enough to remember when the idea of millions of independent networks voluntarily agreeing to exchange best efforts traffic would become a meaningful global medium of communications was laughed at, sneered and scorned by the carrier world and the Collective Wisdom generally. “Who on Earth would manage such a system? How could you get connections? Why would people possibly put meaningful traffic on a best efforts and therefore inherently unreliable network? Don’t sell the bike shop Orville, that’s just crazy talk!”

The idea of self organizing networks, where each individual network contributes some resource because it derives benefit of some sort from the contribution, happens around every day. If you are reading this blog post, then you are participating in and using precisely the same kind of network that would emerge from making enough high-quality spectrum available for bigger, better WiFi.

Means describes libraries as "natural community laboratories for innovation." As gathering places in the community that are funded with local dollars, libraries are the ideal place for white space experimentation on a local level. We'll follow this story with another post next week looking at some of the pilot projects.

Don Means on Libraries and White Spaces - Community Broadband Bits Episode 79

This week, Don Means joins us to talk about public libraries, their role in the modern era, and an interesting pilot project involving several libraries and white spaces wireless technology. Don is the coordinator of the Gigabit Libraries Network and has a passion for both libraries and expanding Internet access to all.

We offer some basic background on "TV white spaces" wireless technology (see our other coverage of that technology here). The pilot libraries in this project are using white spaces as backhaul from a library branch location to nearby areas where they have created Wi-Fi hot spots.

Libraries involved with the project are located in Kansas, New Hampshire, Colorado, Illinois, Mississippi, and California.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 15 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Local Efforts Will Bring Free Wi-Fi to Vidalia, Louisiana

Vidalia joins the growing list of communities with plans to offer free Wi-Fi. A recent Miami Herald article reports on recent plans. Community leaders hope to get the project ready for launch in spring 2014.

Vidalia, home to 4,300 residents, hoped to use funds from a 2010 Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant to build a fiber network. Unfortunately for the entire state, the grant was revoked due to Governor Jindal's shenanigans. Jindal's plans for the funds violated the terms of the grant. Vidalia, with its own electric utility, then sought funding from other sources. 

According to the Herald article:

The Telecommunications Development Fund Foundation awarded the city a $30,000 grant, announced last week, to deploy a wireless network. The foundation was founded in 2008 with the mission of bringing communications technology and opportunities to areas underserved by Internet providers.

The Natchez Democrat reports that the service will cover 77 acres that include the Vidalia municipal complex, including City Hall and public safety facilities, and recreation fields used by Concordia Recreation District No. 3. Mayor Hyram Copeland told the Democrat that visitors to the complex repeatedly ask for Wi-Fi access.

The Democrat also reports Senator Mary Landrieu is leading the effort to improve connectivity in the area:

The senator said the Wi-Fi project perfectly complements Vidalia’s ongoing work to build a technology center and install high-speed fiber optic Internet access throughout the city.

“This project will add to Vidalia’s excellent quality of life for residents and promote additional entrepreneurial opportunities for local businesses,” Landrieu said.

Local media coverage of the project:

Video: 
See video

San Francisco's Market Street Now Offering Free Wi-Fi

San Francisco now offers free Wi-Fi along Market Street. The city of approximately 825,000 joins a growing number of local municipalities that provide the service in select parts of town or in the entire city limits. The San Francisco Chronicle reports private companies donated hardware and a gigabit of bandwidth. The final cost was $500,000 to deploy the service, which extends approximately three miles.

According to Govenment Technology, the City Department of Technology developed the system and installed the equipment on traffic lights and other city-owned property. After several attempts to partner with private sector providers failed, city leaders decided it was time to act on their own:

"It was simpler, faster, better to do it on our own," said San Francisco CIO Marc Touitou in a release. "The quality is higher, with the technical design by the Department of Technology. We wanted high capacity. ... We wanted it to be cool -- no strings attached, no ads."

On December 10th, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the City of New York would soon provide free Wi-Fi in Harlem. We have also reported on many of the other communities that offer free municipal Wi-Fi including: Ponca City, OklahomaAztec, New Mexico; and San Jose, California

San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee noted the free service is only the beginning of larger plans to improve connectivity. From the city news release:

“Nearly a quarter-million people walk down Market Street every day, and now they will be able to connect to the Internet through our free public Wi-Fi,” said Mayor Lee. “Providing Wi-Fi on our City’s main busy thoroughfare is a big first step towards a larger vision of connectivity for our City as a whole, bridging the digital divide and ensuring that our diverse communities have access to innovation.”