Fireless Wireless

When Mayor Jim West first flipped the switch to the Spokane HotZone in June 2004, the rest of the country took notice. CNN reported on the “largest deployment of … wi-fi in any urban area in the United States,” as Spokane blanketed 100 blocks of downtown with free wireless Internet connectivity. “A lot of communities have hot spots,” West boasted at the time. “We have a hot zone.”

Four months later, Time magazine ran an in-depth story on the project, calling it “a radical experiment in urban wireless technology” and a “live-in laboratory where city-employed nerds are crash-testing the wireless technotopia of the future.” Even this paper speculated that Spokane was in a position “not only to stay on the cutting edge, but perhaps to be the blade that cuts the cord for good.”

The so-called HotZone, which was initially conceived as an ad hoc wireless solution for scorekeeping at Hoopfest, was supposed to be a revolution — a portent of the way cities would work and communicate in the future, a new kind of public utility, a cheap way to get poorer populations on the grid. Big cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco jumped on the bandwagon, signing up for wi-fi clouds that would light up their entire cities.

But four years later, those big-city networks have nearly all faltered. And the Spokane HotZone, once a media darling, now whirs in relative obscurity. While about 150 people are logged on to the Zone at any given time (an increase over recent years), the company that hosts the service, OneEighty Networks, says it hasn’t even bothered to collect fees and only recently began storing usage statistics.

Garv Brakel, who heads the city’s Management Information Services department, says free (or almost free) public wireless access was “a neat idea” but likely one whose heyday is over. Not that the network is going anywhere, since the city spends virtually no money keeping it running at current levels. (The upfront $70,000 was the only major expense.) Brakel says he’s now more concerned with the municipal applications for wi-fi than he is with letting people surf the Web at coffee shops. Police use a secured portion of the network to run license plates and enter reports in real time. The city is also equipping parking enforcement officers with wi-fi-enabled devices that will allow them to process tickets and check license plates against a list of stolen vehicles.

Public wi-fi, Brakel says, has just become too problematic, as cities have failed to find a model that works. Public/private partnerships like those in Philadelphia and San Francisco fizzled with the bad fortune of their private partner, Earthlink. A story on last August reported that several cities were backing away from pursuing public wi-fi, and some existing networks “have proved dodgy investments for their sponsoring companies, with residents complaining that service was never consistent and speedy enough to prompt them to subscribe.” The story concluded that “municipal wi-fi does not look long for this world.”

The problem is that no city has yet found that “killer app” — a use for wi-fi that is so convenient, so powerful and so attractive that the populace demands that the city provide it, says Steve Simmons, the director of the Center for Network Computing and Cyber Security at Eastern Washington University.

“I’m a veteran of many serious attempts [to come up with a killer app],” Simmons says, citing wireless scorekeeping at Hoopfest and an idea for walking tours of the city, on which tourists could wave wireless devices at a building to get additional information about it. “None of those things proved to be enough of a killer app to make them, say, vote it in on a bond. Swimming pools, they vote [for].”

The “killer apps” have already been discovered by government, he says, in the form of the aforementioned city and public safety uses. Until the technology improves to the point where people can do more than just check their e-mail on the go — where they can hear live streaming music or play high-performance interactive games — Simmons says public wi-fi is just a “solution looking for a problem.”

Further clouding the calculus — and the present and future of municipal wireless — are relatively new technologies like WiMax, which could theoretically broadcast signals some 30 miles in every direction, as opposed to the mile or so that standard wi-fi signals can reach. The problem for public wi-fi is that much of the bandwidth for WiMax — the bandwidth which will be abandoned by analog television broadcasters as part of the switch to digital TV next year — was auctioned off to big companies like Verizon Wireless and AT & amp;T (though the FCC could decide this week that a portion of the bandwidth that was auctioned off must be made freely available to the public).

“If WiMax works like they say, it will kill any municipal wireless initiative,” says Brakel, standing atop the roof of City Hall and pointing across the north side to a giant cell phone tower looming over the horizon near Joe Albi Stadium. Imagine if that was a WiMax transmitter, he says, broadcasting 30 miles in any direction. “You can’t beat that kind of service.”

As he delivers this pre-mortem, Brakel is standing beneath a broad, white wi-fi panel that’s mounted to an old beat-up Hoopfest backboard, which is weighed down by big chunks of concrete and a pair of white plastic barrels filled with something heavy. Six of these on rooftops around the city — and a dozen bridge routers on streetlights — make up the city’s wireless network infrastructure. The service can go down in storms. Lightning has fried transmitters. Only recently has the city started to weatherproof the equipment, running the wires inside metal conduit that snakes across the rooftop.

Spokane is not in a hurry to keep on the cutting edge of municipal wireless technology. “We’re beefing up what we’ve [already] got,” Brakel says, noting that he’s watching to see what happens next in the market, but he’s not overly optimistic. “What’s the job of municipal government?” he asks. “It’s probably not providing free Internet service to all its citizens. It would be a nice thing, but I can’t really justify spending public money on it … [So] unless there was a group that came forward with a demand for municipal wireless, that’s probably as far as that will go.”

Leaning against the parapet on the roof, he stops for a moment with a smile on his face. “Funny story,” he says, laughing as he recalls it. “During all the early media hoopla, we had people coming in from all over. We had the deputy mayor of Tijuana, Mexico, in here and we took him up here and that [backboard-mounted transmitter] looked even rattier than it does now, and he takes one look at that and says, ‘That’ll fit right in in Tijuana.'”

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