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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.”

Poulsbo Wireless Mesh Pilot Extends Internet in Washington - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #66

With a population of over 9,000 just across Puget Sound from Seattle, Poulsbo is a town with a lot of commuters and a vision for improved access to the Internet to allow more to reduce the physical need to travel. City Councilmember Ed Stern joins us for the 66th episode of Community Broadband Bits to discuss their plan.

We talk about the history of Noanet and Kitsap Public Utility District investing in fiber networks, only to have the state legislature restrict the business models of such entities in a bid to protect private providers (that have repaid that kindness by refusing to invest in much of the state).

Unable to achieve its vision for a fiber network, Poulsbo has since created an ordinance to increase the amount of conduit in the community for future projects and embarked on an open access mesh wireless project. See our full coverage of Poulsbo.

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 19 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 Break the Bans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Washington State Law Change Transformed Fiber Project in Poulsbo

The story has been updated to fix errors. The original story described the project as a partnership but we have since learned it is a project of the Kitsap Public Utility District that is encouraged by the City.

We reported on Poulsbo, Washington, last fall after the community began a wireless pilot project providing a free high-capacity wireless mesh network throughout downtown. Kitsap Public Utility District is running the project, with encouragement from the City. An interview with Poulsbo City Council member Ed Stern filled in more details on this local project.

A wireless mesh pilot project was not the original plan. The public utility district had been investing in a fiber optic network to reduce costs for local government and provide better broadband for schools and hospitals. Stern and other city leaders also recognized that encouraging telecommuting would keep local dollars in the community. Poulsbo is very close to Seattle and city leadership hoped to draw employees from Seattle offices and encourage economic development. They offered a high quality of life and knew better broadband would draw more employers to Poulsbo.

The partners installed a fiber backbone throughout the city and had planned to expand last mile connections in the near future. Poulsbo also codified changes in conduit policy with new ordinances to better manage public rights-of-way. The code requires private providers to first use existing city conduit and the city reserves the right to lease it to them. This policy prevents unnecessary wear and tear and traffic disruption on local streets.

However, the state legislature erected barriers that derailed the full project by revoking PUD authority to offer direct retail services. To this day, public utility districts are required to wholesale access, which rarely creates enough revenue to justify the initial cost of building networks. Community leaders knew that wholesale-only models carry more risk because they split an already tight revenue stream. With the change in state law, the community re-evaluated the fiber network plan. 

Rather than abandon the plan, Poulsbo and the PUD adjusted it to use the existing fiber assets. They created the wireless mesh pilot project that went live in Poulsbo in November 2012. They funded the project with a Local Improvement District (LID) loan from the State of Washington. LID works with specific geographic areas; the neighbors in an area collaborate to form each district. The City heads up the project by handling the design, financing, and construction of the improvements, selling bonds for financing. The property owners in the geographic area payback the bonds through special assessments over 10 or 20 years. 

Kitsap PUD Logo

The City and the PUD put up main antennas connecting to its existing fiber for backhaul. Each node, or wireless networking device, connects with at least two other nodes creating a quilt-like series of connections. As the number of participants increase, the reach of the network expands. The mesh network provides symmetrical Wi-Fi connectivity at no charge throughout downtown. Stern described the network in a January 2013 Stop the Cap! article:

“It’s not a typical ‘hot spot’ limited to that business or specific location, but rather like ‘umbrella’ coverage, in that the antennas join together to create seamless coverage of everything and everybody throughout the area,” Stern said, adding network expansion is now inching into residential neighborhoods as well. “It’s really exciting.”

The proposed and altered projects caused telecommunications providers to take a second look at Poulsbo. They have since improved service and lowered rates. Stern describes the project as the epitome of democracy. The community created the network, use it, and care for it. Also from the Stop the Cap! article:

One local resident told the newspaper it was about time.

“The privatization business model has proven a failure,” wrote one reader. “Kitsap PUD needs to offer retail broadband to residents and businesses. These fiber cables are just sitting there doing nothing. There is one at the end of my driveway, but no one will sell me the service. Why would CenturyLink bother when they can continue to get overpaid for very slow speeds. In most places, there aren’t choices.”

Sascha Meinrath Causes a Commotion on Community Broadband Bits #41

Sascha Meinrath, Director of the Open Technology Institute (OTI) at the New America Foundation, joined me at the National Conference for Media Reform to discuss what OTI does and to discuss the Commotion Wireless project.

Commotion is a project that is making it easier for anyone to build wireless mesh networks that allow for secure, affordable, and resilient communications. We explain what each of these components mean and why each is important.

We also discuss the ways in which these networks can make the powerful worry about what happens when all citizens can talk amongst themselves without being wiretapped or overcharged. Commotion should be a game changer both at home and abroad.

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 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

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

Thanks to D. Charles Speer & the Helix for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Amherst, MA, Upgrades Its Free WiFi

In 2007, the City of Amherst, Massachusetts received a $150,000 grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to build a wireless mesh network. DARPA and NSF have long been interested in developing mesh networks that are more resilient than traditional hub and spoke type networks.

The City IT Department, UMass Amherst Office of Information Technology Department, DARPA and NSF collaborated to deploy the network that now covers much of the city.

According to GazetteNet.com, the city is now investing another $50,000 to upgrade the system which now extends a mile through downtown. From the article:

“We definitely have the fastest and largest outdoor Wi-Fi network in the state,” said Information Technology Director Kristopher Pacunas.

The new system, which replaces aging equipment that was part of a smaller municipal Wi-Fi system, will be a boon to those who live, work and shop in downtown Amherst, said Pacunas, who anticipates as many as 2,000 different people will use the system daily.

“We’ve seen data in the short time we’ve had this (that) people will come to downtown areas with free Wi-Fi,” Pacunas said.

While the new upgrades were not officially launched until the start of 2013, Pacunas said that over 10,400 people used the system in the weeks leading up to the new year. Pacunas also notes that the network has limited functionality indoors, being designed mostly for public outdoor spaces downtown.

 The Town of Amherst Public WiFi website describes how the design was meant to blend in with the look of the city and the light and utility poles that house the access points. There are 30 wireless mesh access points and burst speeds up to 80 Mbps. This is another example of how a municipal network can create direct benefits AND indirect benefits simply through its implementation. Also from the article:

Alex Krogh-Grabbe, director of the Amherst Business Improvement District, said he sees the benefits of the system.

“The new downtown Wi-Fi put downtown Amherst and its business district way ahead of most communities in terms of attracting people to downtown through technology,” Krogh-Grabbe said.

Amhert Town Hall photo used under Creative Commons license courtesy of John Phelan.

More Information about Community Wireless Approach in Mount Pleasant, DC

We previously noted a grassroots wireless initiative in Mount Pleasant that the Open Technology Institute is assisting and we are now cross-posting more details that they recently published. Thanks to Preston Rhea, who published this interview with one of the first volunteers to install a node.

I recently wrote about a local effort to build a wireless community network in Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C.In April I chatted with Bill Comisky, the first neighbor-link in the Mount Pleasant Community Wireless Network (MtPCWN), a grassroots approach to providing wireless access to the neighborhood. Bill discussed why he installed an Internet-connected mesh router on his roof, his skilled observations and recommendations for the network, and what he hopes to see the network support for the neighborhood in the future.

How did you hear about the network?

I heard about it when you posted to our street’s e-mail list in June. On that super-local list, people like to share things - tools, a cup of sugar, furniture - and it’s also neighborly to share wireless access. I worked with Sascha (Meinrath, Director, Open Technology Institute) on community wireless a few years ago, so it immediately caught my eye.

You’ve worked on this before?

I design antennas for a living, so I have a professional interest. In Chicago, I volunteered with the nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology installing wireless networks in underserved communities. Even though it was only a few years ago, the software and hardware were much less developed than they are today. The equipment cost several hundred dollars and we had to assemble it the hard way ourselves. Since then, things have gotten robust and cheap.

I asked for your advice at the beginning of the project about the technology considerations.

For low-cost technology, a wireless mesh network is a complicated system. It's difficult to estimate how radio waves will operate in an urban environment. You have to consider 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz for the WiFi frequency band - 2.4 GHz propagates better than 5 GHz through trees and around buildings, but it is also a congested frequency due to the routers in people’s homes. Those are decisions you have to make up front, because you can't reverse mid-stream and tell people to change their routers.

There was a question about whether these routers would just serve as backbones for a network, or also as access points themselves. The new systems include dual-purposed rooftop nodes, which can act as a backbone router and an access point--like what you see at a cafe or a library. So in hindsight, unlocked access points broadcasting at 2.4 GHz is a good idea because most people use 2.4 GHz on their laptops and phones.

Why did you choose to share your Internet connection as a gateway?

 My past experience makes me a good early adopter. I have the tech skills to troubleshoot if needed, which hasn’t come up yet! I work from home and I have a good Internet connection with more bandwidth than I really need or use. It's there, why not share it?

It's nice for people to have a stop-gap solution for Internet access. Everything you do requires a broadband connection - email, applying to jobs, connecting to your bank. If you don't have a broadband-capable phone, and you lose your home broadband, you have to go to the library. This is a critical service, and there aren't a lot of options. Comcast and Verizon--that’s the extent of ISP options on our street.

 

oti-mount-pleasant-router-flash.jpg

What are your connection details?

My Internet bandwidth is 20 Mbps download, 2 Mbps upload. I have quality of service (QoS) rules to prioritize my traffic, but if someone on MtPCWN needs the bandwidth and I'm not using it, there is no cap. So far I have experienced no difference in my speeds.

Have you heard any feedback about the network?

I have heard from several neighbors. A while ago someone emailed asking about the network, since a router was accidentally unplugged (author’s note: it was my router!) and she relies on it for access. We were able to help her out with that. A few people have come to me on the street asking about the network and if they can use it. People ask questions about the cost, and the security. They are good questions - people should know what they are getting in to.

What local applications would you like to see on the network?

The Internet has made a ton of things accessible, but it's hard to get hyper-local content. A local radio station streaming over the network is like a very old radio station - you have to be in the geographic range to hear it. Nothing prevents people from doing this on the Internet, but the audience can get very diluted. You know that if you have listeners in a very local context, they will get your references. They have more of a chance for their voice to be heard by a relevant audience. It's like being in the local town square.

Photos courtesy of Preston Rhea from Flickr

Open Technology Institute Explores Gig.U Model for Community Networks

Publication Date: 
April 23, 2012
Author(s): 
Benjamin Lennett, Open Technology Institute, New America Foundation
Author(s): 
Sarah Morris, Open Technology Institute, New America Foundation
Author(s): 
Greta Byrum, Open Technology Institute, New America Foundation

In a report entitled "Universities as Hubs for Next-Generation Networks," the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation has explored a new path for expanding community networks. The full report is available here [pdf].

This report builds on the Gig.U initiative, in which major universities are working with communities and other partners to expand access to next-generation networks in select areas. We recently wrote about a Gig.U project in Maine.

This approach encourages a very collaborative approach with lots of community input and a mix of fiber-optic lines feeding neighborhood wireless networks. Universities already need robust connections but few have been as bold as Case Western Reserve University, which initiated a project to share a gig with neighbors in Cleveland.

OTI calls on open access fiber links connecting anchor institutions that allow wireless nodes to easily connect. Planning for such interconnection upfront is far preferable to adding it after because interconnection points should be placed in convenient places for wireless transmitters.

The people at OTI have long championed mesh architectures and this report again explores the benefits of such an approach:

Moreover, communities deploying wireless mesh technology can incorporate additional service offerings into their networks. Mesh facilitates the use of a community-wide intranet, allowing all users connected to the mesh to access content and applications from local schools, universities, libraries, religious establishments, social service agencies, local governments, and local anchor institutions.

To the extent that each of these components is also connected to the mesh, the intranet component of the network would be functional even without Internet backhaul connectivity, and might actually run faster than Internet connections.

... Read the rest of our review here ...

Franklin County, Private Partnerships, and Wireless Broadband

Craig Settles has been pumping out some in-depth interviews with community networks on his new Gigabit Nation audio show. This show discusses a wireless network built using a public-private partnership in Franklin County, Virginia.

The approach is outlined in this case study [pdf] and excerpted here:

Franklin County formed a partnership with a local wireless Internet service provider (WISP) to expand the County's local government wide-area network and provide broadband options for the citizens. The project leveraged County structures such as towers and water tanks for WISP transmitters and receivers. We were in the process of upgrading the public safety radio system at the same time, so the two efforts worked together to identify possible new tower locations that would improve radio coverage and meet broadband demand.

The partnership provided the WISP with a fast-path to business growth through additional funding and access to existing infrastructure. The County provided space on towers, tanks and poles in exchange for Internet service at County offices. This arrangement lowered deployment costs for the WISP, expediting business growth.

The partnership expanded the WISP customer base in Franklin County from 98 customers in early 2005 to approximately 1000 in early 2008. In addition, 15 fire and rescue stations were added to the County’s wide-area-network (WAN) in addition to five other County offices. There are many advantages to moving remote offices onto the WAN, including reduced costs and improved communications and data sharing across County Administration. The wireless mesh network supports data and voice and the WISP is currently segmenting the County's voice traffic on their network to ensure quality of service (QoS).

A case study from Motorola [pdf] notes that Franklin County has received awards for its approach:

At the 10th annual Commonwealth of Virginia Innovative Technology Symposium in 2008, Governor Timothy M. Kaine awarded Franklin County with one of the Technology Awards for Excellence for the County’s innovative approach to the use of technology in improving government services and efficiency. Receiving the award on behalf of Franklin County, Terry said, “This award demonstrates Franklin County’s leadership in the state in addressing the challenges facing local governments with innovative solutions.”

With an eye to the future, Franklin County is now working with the Appalachia Colleges Community Economic Development Partnership (ACCEDP) to further expand the service through a community outreach to bring high speed Internet to underserved, high demand areas.

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North East Los Angeles Internet Service Cooperative

While most of the information on this site is about broadband networks at a citywide level, there are a variety of groups that are working to supply broadband at the neighborhood level (often in large metro areas). I have worked with folks in Saint Paul that want to establish a coop to deliver symmetrical broadband much faster that Comcast and Qwest (I hesitate to even include them because it will OF COURSE be faster than Qwest).

I just learned of the North East Los Angeles Internet Service Cooperative that is attempting to bring better broadband to a number of neighborhoods in LA. They have run into many of the same barriers I saw in Saint Paul - organizing people for better broadband is difficult. People are intimidated by technology and reticent to pledge the necessary funds needed to launch a cooperative.

At this point, the NE LA Coop is more of an idea than an entity that can deliver service, but it is educating people about the benefits of moving beyond monopolistic incumbents. The person responsible for the idea, Jared, has a number of innovative ideas that may prove very interesting and demonstrate the innovative potential of networks freed from the rules of incumbents.

For instance, by aggregating or sharing the connections of multiple subscribers, individual users may find a boost effect in their surfing. By sharing connections, users can take more control over their networks (and their privacy) - but massive companies like Comcast and Time Warner don't allow users to do this. Community networks may be more accommodating -- especially if required to be when created. To any who find this improbable, remember that when we own the network, we make the rules.