Oct 31 2006

Wi-Fi Goes to Work in the City

A growing number of cities and airports have created free or low-cost wireless hot zones. Does Wi-Fi make sense for your town or public facility?
Samuel Greengard

THE WAY SAMUEL INGALLS SEES IT, there’s nothing better than an airport that helps travelers make their connections. But these days, the assistant director of aviation information systems at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas has more than flights in mind. As he walks through the various terminals of the nation’s sixth busiest airport, he’s excited about the airport’s introduction of wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) access throughout the facility.

“Airports are places where people want to put their time to maximum use,” he observes. “It’s a natural place for Internet connectivity.”

In January, McCarran unveiled the complimentary service, which upwards of 300 travelers use each day. Individuals switch on their notebook computer, personal digital assistant (PDA) or smartphone; open their browser; and find themselves at a portal page for the airport. From there, they can surf the Web and check their e-mail over a 6-megabits-per-second (Mbps) connection.

The service is already flying high. “Wi-Fi is an opportunity to offer a tangible service to customers at a very low cost to the airport,” Ingalls points out. “We’re able to provide a positive experience for travelers and enhance our image. We have heard nothing but positive feedback, and it is clear that the popularity of the service will only grow.”

McCarran isn’t the only public facility to embrace wireless technology. In an era of instant access to information, a growing number of cities and airports are creating free or low-cost Wi-Fi hot zones. Residents or visitors can boot up and log in—often at blazing broadband speeds. In some cases, they’re able to use the service as often and as long as they like.

The list of cities includes Long Beach, Calif.; Oakland, Calif.; Spokane, Wash.; Philadelphia; St. Louis; and Winston-Salem, N.C. Even small towns, such as Chaska, Minn., are getting into the act. Airports with Wi-Fi access now include Tampa (Fla.) International, Albuquerque (N.M.) International, Roanoke (Va.) Airport and Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, Calif.

“It all boils down to the dynamics of mobility and connectivity,” says Amy Cravens, a senior analyst at In-Stat, a Scottsdale, Ariz., market research and consulting firm. “A growing number of entities—both public and private—recognize that there’s value in offering Wi-Fi access. In every instance, there is something in it for the city. It’s often about differentiation and creating an image of being high-tech.”

Gaining Momentum

It’s no secret that the migration to Wi-Fi has gained momentum during the past few years. According to JiWire, a San Francisco-based wireless locator service, the number of worldwide hot spots is approaching 60,000, and that figure is expected to double in 2005. While Starbucks, Borders and FedEx Kinko’s have garnered headlines for offering wireless service in their stores, there’s also a silent revolution taking place: Communities and airports are rapidly stepping into the Wi-Fi picture.

That’s not news to Terry Evans, the manager of infrastructure services for the City of Long Beach. The seaside community of nearly 500,000 residents, located about 30 miles south of Los Angeles, was one of the first cities to offer free Wi-Fi access. In January 2003, the city switched on service along a three-block shopping and dining corridor known as Pine Avenue. Today, visitors who log on to the system wind up at www.longbeachportals.com and access the Web via a 1.54Mbps connection.

About 200 people use the system each week. It relies on a T-1 line connected to the Internet to supply bandwidth. Four access points broadcast the signal across the neighborhood. Long Beach relies on a public-private partnership, and advertising on its portal site helps defray the cost of managing the 802.11b network. The original startup cost of the network was only a few thousand dollars.

“Our goal has never been to get into the ISP [Internet service provider] business, and we don’t want to provide tech support,” Evans explains. “We simply hope to attract people to the area and make things more convenient for Pine Avenue patrons.

“We hope to make Long Beach a technology-friendly city. Wi-Fi is just one part of the initiative, which also includes high-capacity fiber rings to businesses. By creating a showcase, we hope to attract companies.”

Last year, the city expanded its free Wi-Fi service to Long Beach Airport, which accommodates more than 2.9 million passengers a year and serves five airlines. “Wi-Fi has proven a winning situation for everyone involved,” Evans reports.

To be sure, an increasing number of cities are eyeing Wi-Fi access or have already embraced it. For example, downtown St. Louis features a 42-block hot zone that is available for free. In Spokane, residents can log on to the Internet from within a 100-block hot zone for up to two hours a day.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia hopes to offer citywide Wi-Fi access by 2006. The city plans to use 4,000 wireless antennas attached to lamp posts and traffic signals to create a high-speed broadband network. It is proposing to charge residents $15 to $25 per month for service.

Getting Into the Act

Another city that has already gotten into the broadband business is Chaska, Minn., which is located on the outskirts of Minneapolis. Last November, the 16- square-mile community, with a population of about 18,000 people, switched on Wi-Fi across a 13-square-mile area.

Residents pay $15.99 per month for a 1.2Mbps downstream connection and a 600-kilobits-per-second (Kbps) upstream connection. Businesses pay $24.99 per month for higher bandwidth access. Already, Chaska.net boasts 2,000 residential subscribers and nearly 100 business accounts.

Chaska spent about $850,000 to build the Wi-Fi network. It uses 250 access points and 40 routers scattered across the community. The subscribers obtain a wireless Ethernet bridge with the service. It provides access without cables, drivers and software updates. In addition, subscribers can also use a PC card or a USB adapter to connect their notebook, PDA or smartphone.

Bradley Mayer, IS manager for Chaska, says the city expects to achieve a return on investment for the equipment and operating costs within three years. Any future proceeds will stay in a Chaska.net fund.

Already, Wi-Fi is changing the way residents of Chaska live and work. It also is helping the city communicate with residents more effectively through a log-on portal.

“We wanted to put in place a system that could serve all residents of the city,” Mayer says. “It is especially useful for low-income residents who cannot afford the $40 to $50 per month for cable or DSL access. Chaska.net binds the community together and benefits everyone.” Mayer believes the service might eventually have 3,500 subscribers.

Meeting Resistance

The idea of municipalities getting into the Internet business doesn’t appeal to everyone. In February, Indiana legislators considered a bill that would have made it difficult for communities to build their own broadband networks. However, the bill eventually stalled out.

In Pennsylvania, aggressive lobbying from telecommunications providers resulted in a law that bans cities and townships from providing any fee-based broadband or wireless service—unless a private service provider doesn’t establish a network within 14 months. However, Philadelphia is exempt from that law.

Despite these lobbying efforts, the march toward Wi-Fi continues. For instance, at McCarran International Airport, the introduction of Wi-Fi is only the first step in a much larger technology initiative, Ingalls says. While travelers can now log on in five to 10 seconds and use the 802.11b/g network 24 x 7, airport management hopes to expand wireless connectivity—using a separate business-based private network—to airlines, shops, restaurants and other facilities. “Wireless technology,” he says, “would provide new opportunities for businesses and a potential revenue source for the airport.”

Clark County also introduced Wi-Fi to the nearby North Las Vegas Airport and Henderson Executive Airport. Pilots at those facilities—flying mostly private aircraft—can hop online to file flight plans, check weather and handle other business needs. “Wireless Internet access at these airports improves safety and makes [the airports] more attractive to business travelers,” Ingalls adds.

In fact, Ingalls sees Wi-Fi as inevitable for airports and other facilities. The cost of installing 30 access points and other hardware and software that was used at McCarran was a mere $70,000 and took only a week, he says. Posting signs around the airport cost next to nothing. And the feedback from travelers has been overwhelmingly positive.

“People who use the system say they are incredibly thankful to have Wi-Fi available,” Ingalls says. “There’s no better place than an airport to check e-mail and browse the Internet.”

Wi-Fi Hot Spots at a Glance

U.S. Numbers (fee and free)

Airports: 382
Downtown Areas: 39
Cafés: 6,148
Hotels: 4,918

Typical Customers

Airports: Business travelers
Downtown Areas: All demographic groups, particularly low-income
Cafés: Students, business professionals
Hotels: Business professionals

Strategic Goals

Airports: Customer service, high-tech image
Downtown Areas: Increase traffic to shopping and dining districts, enhance image, provide better city services and low-income Internet access
Cafés: Attract customers, increase sales
Hotels: Customer service, enhance image


Airports: Free to $7.95/day and $20/month
Downtown Areas: Free to $25/month
Cafés: Free to $7.95/day and $20/month
Hotels: Free to $7.95/day and $20/month

Source: JiWire and story sources

Unwired Workers

WHILE MANY CITIES AND AIRPORTS are introducing free or low-cost Wi-Fi access for consumers, others are turning to wireless technology to usher in a new era of efficiency for police, firefighters, engineers and other workers. The city of Spokane, Wash., for example, has created an entirely separate private network that runs alongside the public system.

No longer must police officers phone in license plate numbers via a radio. They can enter the digits into a PC in their vehicle and have the information by the time the light turns green. Meanwhile, meter readers can use handheld devices to write and print parking tickets. Philadelphia hopes that its pending network will help police officers download mug shots while on patrol and allow city workers—from animal control officers to engineers—to download the data they need to do their jobs more effectively. Using encrypted Wi-Fi with virtual private networking, it’s possible to achieve the high level of security that’s required for handling sensitive data.

“Opportunities for Wi-Fi extend far beyond public access,” points out Amy Cravens, a senior analyst at In-Stat, a market research firm in Scottsdale, Ariz. “The technology has the potential to redefine business processes and work for public agencies.”

U.S. Downtown Areas With Public Wi-Fi Hot Spots

AZ (1)

CA (6)

CO (1)

CT (1)

FL (4)

HI (2)

IA (1)

IN (1)

KY (1)

LA (4)

MA (1)

ME (1)

MN (1)

MO (1)

NC (3)

NH (1)

NJ (1)

NY (4)

PA (1)

UT (2)

WI (1)

Source: JiWire