TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Seattle's Free Wi-Fi Hits Some Snags

Seattle's Free Wi-Fi Hits Some Snags

Marcus Jervis (
Thu, 13 Oct 2005 18:52:31 +0000

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.

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

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

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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