PTP in the Oregonian - The wireless cloud? (fwd)

Tue, 11 Mar 2003 11:10:09 -0500 (EST)

City ponders offering wireless Internet access



When it comes to wireless Internet access, first place isn't good enough for
some Portland city leaders.

Portland recently earned the title of "most unwired city" in a nationwide
survey commissioned by Intel. But some want everyone in the city to have
WiFi Internet access, even if it means government intervention.

Quietly floating around City Hall is the idea of the city operating such a
system, which provides wireless Internet access to anyone with a laptop
computer and the proper equipment. Proponents tout the plan as an
inexpensive economic development tool. But some say that, with tight
government budgets, the city shouldn't be spending money on cool technology.

"There is a real potential benefit to the downtown," said Marshall Runkel,
an aide to City Commissioner Erik Sten. "If you talk to people who own
hotels, more and more they're seeing on their comment cards, 'If you don't
have WiFi, we're not coming back to your establishment.' "

Runkel began researching the possibility of municipally supported WiFi six
months ago, when he was approached by Nigel Ballard, a board member of
Personal Telco, a grass-roots community group that promotes the technology.

Members of Personal Telco broadcast their Internet connections to anyone
with a laptop or personal handheld device equipped with a wireless ethernet
radio. Popular Personal Telco spots include Pioneer Courthouse Square and
the South Park Blocks. Speeds can be several times those of cable modems and
digital-subscriber-line connections.

Users must be within a few blocks of the transmitters, though, creating
spotty coverage. Personal Telco envisions a cloud of free WiFi access
hovering over all of Portland.

That's where the city comes in, Ballard said.

Fiber-optic network Ballard said Portland could use its internal fiber-optic
network, which runs throughout the city, to transmit WiFi. Every few blocks,
the city would need to install "access points," which transmit the Internet
connections. Each access point would cost at least a few hundred dollars.

Ballard said the city project could create a cloud first over downtown
Portland and later over the entire Portland area.

"The cost isn't huge because the network is already there," Ballard said.

And Intel, the state's largest private employer, has been investing in the
technology and is rolling out chipsets with WiFi capability. Ballard said
organizers could try to solicit a donation from Intel.

Intel is willing to consider the plan.

"It's certainly an intriguing idea, but we would need a lot more information
to determine whether Intel's involvement is appropriate," said Bill
MacKenzie, an Intel spokesman.

Jim Johnson, vice president of Intel Communications Group, said more college
campuses and businesses are rolling out WiFi.

"I absolutely see it enabling people to do more productive work," said
Johnson, general manager of the company's wireless networking group.

Some cities, such as Long Beach, Calif, have partnered with other groups to
provide WiFi. Johnson said Personal Telco and the city need to figure out
how to make the system financially viable.

"The vision's good, but they would have to agree on what their business
objectives are," Johnson said.

Benefits versus costs Convincing others of those objectives might be tough.
The Portland Development Commission says the benefits of WiFi might not
outweigh the costs.

"There are really many more projects on the PDC's budget than we have money
to fund," said Bob Alexander, the agency's senior business
economic-development manager. "WiFi is an infrastructure item, but it's not
going to make or break any company's decision to come here."

Ballard said he would support a municipal network only if public access was

Runkel, the Sten assistant, said he has not developed a plan and is simply
evaluating potential ways to increase WiFi access.

"If there's a way the city can assist private companies or nonprofits to
deploy it, the city should do anything it can do," he said.

But he acknowledged that WiFi isn't the only thing on the city's agenda.

"It's tough to think about bold new projects in the budget environment we're
in now," Runkel said. "We're trying to keep our eye on the ball and be much
more focused on what we do about people who are losing their houses."