Seattle's Free Wi-Fi Hits Some Snags

As mentioned in past posts to Telecom Digest, Seattle is experimenting with neighborhood-wide wi-fi in several neighborhoods and parks. This is separate from experimental wi-fi service aboard buses, which are operated by the county.

I thought a couple of items in this article are interesting. One is that some businesses along University Way have stopped their regular internet service, expecting to use the free one. I don't know what the nature is of these businesses, but unless they are connecting to a web site that has SSL (and the teltale https instead of http in the browser address bar, like the Seattle Public Library and my bank), they don't have secure access to the net unless they also subscribe to a VPN service.

The other interesting item was that there were already so many wireless routers in the vicinity of University Way that spectrum crowding is a problem.

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Thursday, October 13, 2005 - 12:00 AM

Seattle neighborhoods' free Wi-Fi hits snags By Tricia Duryee Seattle Times technology reporter

Five months ago, Mayor Greg Nickels flawlessly demonstrated a new city-run wireless Internet system in Columbia City as part of a program to see if free access could boost business in certain neighborhoods.

Today, the program is in flux after the network was temporarily shut down in Columbia City and connections in the University District and four city parks experienced sporadic outages.

The city of Seattle's difficulties deploying the technology even in small areas come at a time when cities from San Francisco to Philadel- phia are promising to blanket entire municipal areas with Wi-Fi, a network of so-called hot spots that provide Internet access across short distances.

Seattle's problems illustrate how easily things can go wrong. On the city's Web site, a short message says it all: "We have been experiencing technical problems with some of the equipment used in our WiFi pilot project. Users may not be able to connect to SeattleWiFi at this time."

For now, the city says it is committed to getting the service back up and running.

"We've ended up putting in a lot more technician time than we anticipated; that's been a much bigger cost for us, but we made a commitment to put it in and we'll make it work," said David Keyes, community technology program manager at the city's Department of Information Technology.

The $115,000 pilot program receives money and support from a number of sources. The city is responsible for maintenance while Internet access will be funded through partnerships the University of Washington in the U District and HomeSight and Atlantic Street Center in Columbia City.

Keyes said there's an obvious demand. In August, 50 people a day on average logged in at the parks (Occidental, Freeway, Westlake and Victor Steinbrueck). In the same month, the U District saw a daily average of 231 users, with a high of 284. In Columbia City, there was an average of 27 users a day from May to July, even though the network was never stable.

The city's measured attempt at rolling out Wi-Fi is a test to see if it would drive more customers to businesses in those areas; and not necessarily if Wi-Fi would make sense to roll out citywide.

It is too early to say what must be done to make the networks more stable, Keyes said.

Columbia City

The decision to temporarily shut down the Columbia City network came after Keyes discussed the issue with the business leaders in the South Seattle neighborhood. Businesses have been informed, and notices have been posted on street signs designating Wi-Fi access.

City officials want further analysis before restarting the Columbia City network. Similarly, more work has to be done before the park networks are considered reliable.

The U District network has been the most stable of all since launching in May.

Teresa Lord Hugel, executive director of the Greater University Chamber of Commerce, said she hears from businesses during each outage because some opted to cancel their previous Internet service after getting the free access.

U District

Last week, problems with the U District network prompted the city to ask eqquipment provider D-Link for help. D-Link, based in Fountain Valley, Calif., flew in engineers and hired Wi-Fi consultant Greg Skinner, owner of Bellevue-based ACJ Technology Solutions.

Skinner said most of the U District's difficulties came from networks bumping into each other. Wi-Fi blasts a signal a short distance from an antenna that connects to the Internet. Often, densely inhabited areas contain multiple networks, which cause interference.

Skinner, who will assist in Columbia City and the parks, said it's hard to set the blame on any one entity because flare-ups are typical on new networks. "I've designed quite a few networks and it's very well designed and thought out," he said. "They [the city] obviously never deployed something this large, but they did their homework."

Keyes said: "A couple of things are safe to say. From the community end, there's a demand for this kind of service. ... From a technical end, Wi-Fi is still a challenging technology."

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or

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Marcus Jervis
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