Rollin' on the River

Next week the City of Portland, Ore., will begin third-party testing of the pilot municipal wireless network deployed by MetroFi Inc. , according to Logan Kleier, the project manager for Unwire Portland. The 2.5-square-mile "proof of concept" network went live in early December, and MetroFi is continuing to deploy "hundreds of access points per month," according to MetroFi CEO Chuck Haas.

"We're getting tons of emails saying, 'Hey I saw your truck -- when can I get on the network?' " says Haas. (See Microsoft Takes Muni WiFi Plunge.)

At least in its initial phases, the Portland deployment -- which is being carried out by MetroFi using WiFi mesh equipment from SkyPilot Networks Inc. -- has gone quite smoothly, in marked contrast to other West Coast municipal wireless deployments. That would include the joint Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)/EarthLink Inc. (Nasdaq: ELNK) effort to bring free wireless coverage to San Francisco -- which has been plagued by prolonged negotiations between the city and the companies, bureaucratic infighting, and citizen outcry over supposed deficiencies in the planned service. (See Criticism Mounts in SF Muni Deal.)

In the case of Portland, "We signed the agreement in early August, and we had the first two-and-a-half square miles up and running on Dec. 5," points out Haas.

"It's gone very smoothly," agrees Kleier. "We've had virtually no political controversy, and the City of Portland and MetroFi have successfully moved forward with this project."

The differences between the Portland and San Francisco muni wireless projects is striking enough to raise the question, "How come?" Is it just the laid-back, live-and-let-live culture of the Pacific Northwest? Is it the factional jujitsu of politics in the Bay Area? Is it the rain, or is it something else?

Kleier points to the well-defined goals that Unwire Portland identified at the outset. The MetroFi network, which will include a free, ad-supported service as well as an ad-free subscription option, does not try to be all things to all people. It will eliminate the primary barrier to Internet access for low-income residents -- the cost of service -- but it won't eliminate all of the barriers.

Just deploy, baby
"There are other barriers for these citizens, including the cost of the computer," Kleier points out. "However, the City's wireless RFP did not aim to solve all issues surrounding the digital divide. Instead, it aimed to solve one of these barriers: the cost of access."

Getting the support of all the "stakeholders" in the process at the outset -- from city agencies and the city council to major local businesses and citizens' groups -- was also critical.

Haas echoes those comments from the network provider vantage point: "The Portland RFP was a model of local citizen-business-government involvement. They were very thorough in identifying the assets the city could provide, what they wanted to do with the network, and the anchor-tenant use of the network by the city.

"It's just well thought out, and that kind of planning allowed us as the operator to just focus on deploying the network."

What's more, Kleier and Portland's city government did not over-promise, especially when it comes to universal indoor coverage -- which has become a sticking point in San Francisco. From the start, Kleier and his team made it clear that, while some residents would have high-speed access without an additional signal booster, others will need some form of customer-premises equipment (CPE) to blast the signal indoors.

"Desirable, not required"
"The RFP states that it is desirable, but not required, to have such indoor coverage," Kleier points out. "We recognized the variable nature of WiFi's signal strength in an indoor environment, and so the city acknowledged that it wouldn't be economically feasible or reasonable to require the vendor to provide indoor coverage."

Besides, Haas observes, side-of-house (or apartment building) signal boosters will swiftly become common sights.

"What we see is the price of a WiFi repeater, now sub-$100, will quickly be sub-$50," Haas points out. "If you fast-forward two years in Portland, there will be 10 times as many WiFi repeaters in homes, businesses, and high-rises, than the number of MetroFi lightpole-mounted devices."

At that point the dream of free, ubiquitous WiFi coverage will be closer to reality. At least in the Emerald City.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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