San Jose tries again with free downtown Wi-Fi

The Silicon Valley hub's new network won't need advertising or other revenue to pay for itself

San Jose is casting a vote of confidence in municipal Wi-Fi from the heart of Silicon Valley, planning a new, free network just a few years after such networks were declared all but dead.

The California city of about 1 million intends to offer high-speed Wi-Fi throughout its downtown, covering an area of 1.5 square miles (3.9 square kilometers) in the middle of this year. But unlike earlier municipal Wi-Fi initiatives, such as a Google-sponsored network that would have covered San Francisco, the San Jose system will be able to pay for itself entirely by helping the government do its job.

In the middle of the past decade, ambitious projects in several cities, including parts of San Jose, promised to blanket outdoor areas with Wi-Fi and provide built-in sources of revenue. Home broadband subscriptions, browser-based advertising or small-business use would help to pay for equipment and operations. But those complicated business models depended on assumptions that often proved unfounded.

By contrast, San Jose's new plan is fairly simple. The network will cost about US$94,000 to buy and set up, and then about $22,000 per year to run and maintain, acting CIO Vijay Sammeta said. Benefits to the city will include better connections for city employees and for satellite fire station offices. It will also provide better connectivity for wireless parking meters, and for signs that guide drivers to parking garages using real-time information on the number of spaces available, Sammeta said.

At the same time, the network will offer a way for people working in or visiting downtown to stay connected outdoors and in restaurants and other businesses, he said. San Jose estimates the downtown area has a daytime population of about 50,000, and the city has been striving for years to get workers to leave their offices and make the district more lively and lucrative for small businesses.

The public-facing part of the network will be open and unsecured, so users won't have to sign in or provide a password. The city won't estimate how fast the system will be until it's installed and tested, but Sammeta said users should be able to share a total of 1Gbps (bits per second) or more. One-quarter to one-third of the access points will be directly linked to the city's wired network via fiber connections, while others will be tethered via Wi-Fi mesh.

The IEEE 802.11n network from Ruckus Wireless is designed for outdoor public use, with multiple antennas and beam-forming mechanisms to get around obstacles. It will be implemented by system integrator SmartWave Technologies.

For municipal employees, the network will be secured, and the city also wants to make deals with local companies to use it as an extension of their own networks, Sammeta said. Another revenue possibility may be deals with mobile operators to offload traffic from their cellular networks. But the plan doesn't rely on making those deals, he said. "We're not hanging our hat on it," Sammeta said.

San Jose's new system will replace a series of public hotspots that the city set up with partner MetroFi in 2004. Those networks were supported by advertising, but the arrangement fell apart when MetroFi went out of business in 2008. The annual $22,000 operational cost for the single new network will be about equal that of the old hotspots, Sammeta said.

Most local governments that tried or explored an ad-based network eventually rejected that approach because they didn't want to be in the advertising business, said Craig Settles, an independent broadband analyst who has watched the municipal Wi-Fi movement closely. Even if they outsourced advertising to a third party, governments could be left with headaches if that company failed, he said.

Instead, most of the newer Wi-Fi projects are being justified in the same way as San Jose's, through the things that a robust wireless network helps the government do, Settles said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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