Steeltown or Wi-Fi Techtown?

By Gerry Blackwell

December 17, 2002

The City of Pittsburgh is looking to blow away its smoky steel city image with a state-of-the-art Wi-Fi hotzone.

How many steel mills are there in Pittsburgh, PA, also known Steeltown, USA? The surprising answer: zero. On the other hand, how many Wi-Fi hotzones (with coverage areas larger than your average single-venue hotspot) can Pittsburgh boast? Only one, but with two more to come early next year.

Pittsburgh hasn't really been Steeltown for a couple of decades, but the image -- of grime and belching smokestacks -- has stuck. The community would like to dispel it by establishing the south-west Pennsylvania region as a high-profile, high-tech metropolis.

Pittsburgh's Wi-Fi hotzone, called Grok Secure Connect, is a joint venture between non-profit 3 Rivers Connect and Pittsburgh-based wireless integrator Grok Technology. The project could be a model for other communities -- and entrepreneurs -- looking to exploit the potential of Wi-Fi.

3 Rivers (3rc) was formed five years ago by area civic and business interests. Its mission is to "accelerate economic, social and educational development through innovative uses of information technology." Among other things the company operates an ISP for "third-sector" organizations -- government, education, health -- as well as a Web portal ( and a high-tech airport information kiosk.

"We run each project to be sustainable," explains 3rc executive director Ronald Gdovic. "We assume that at some point, revenues will exceed expenses. When we've built them to the point we're satisfied they can be self-sustaining, we'll spin them off to run as for-profit enterprises."

Grok Secure Connect, which went live officially at the beginning of December in the city's Oakland area near Carnegie-Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, is a little different. Although Gdovic variously refers to it as a "pilot," a "proof of concept" and "an evaluation project," Grok is running it as a for-profit business from the get-go.

"We have a business plan we developed with Grok," Gdovic explains. "They're managing the technology and handling marketing. We provided seed capital of $60,000 on our side. On the Grok side, there's a lot of sweat equity they've put into it."

If this sounds like a sweet-heart deal for Grok, well, maybe it is. But would the company have built a hotzone in Oakland without the 3rc money? "Probably," says the firm's founder and CEO, Danette O'Connell. "Eventually. But it would probably not have been our first project."

No matter. O'Connell used the money -- which actually came from the Heinz Endowment, a family trust and one of 3rc's funders -- to establish a network of five Avaya access points covering a two-mile stretch along Forbes Avenue, from Meyran to South Craig Streets. It includes a five-block chunk of college campus at one end, but most of the area is densely commercial.

The network provides coverage about a half-block on either side of Forbes Avenue and part way into buildings. To extend coverage all the way into businesses along the street, owners will have to shell out for access points or repeaters -- but then the owners will get a share of revenues from subscribers who sign up or log on at their establishments.

Two popular restaurants along the strip, Kiva Han and Primanti Brothers, are the beta sites for commercial in-building coverage. Other businesses with store front or low-level building-front space may have at least partial coverage. Several public University of Pittsburgh buildings also have inside coverage.

Subscribers pay a surprisingly low $18.95 a month for unlimited access -- or $5 a day, $12.95 a week or $154 a year. For that, Grok aims to deliver "at least 128 Kbps" of bandwidth, with a maximum of 1.54 Mbps, gated by the T-1 connection that links the hotzone network to ISP Nauticom.

3rc and Grok expect to find subscribers among students, especially students at the University of Pittsburgh, which unlike Carnegie-Mellon does not have a campus Wi-Fi network. Also targeted will be local businesses, workers at several major healthcare and research facilities in the area and mobile professionals who commute into the area daily but don't have office space.

At the time of writing, Grok Secure Connect had only been up and running for a few days. At that point it had a half-dozen paying subscribers. The students had just left after finishing end-of-semester exams, so that marketing campaign will wait until January when they return. In the meantime, Grok is concentrating on other target markets.

Formed in April 2001, the company's main business is providing wireless LAN and fixed wireless access networks for businesses, but it also has a vision of building a city-wide Wi-Fi hotzone. "What a great way to change our image if the whole city is wireless," O'Connell enthuses. "What a wonderful image for Pittsburgh."

Grok has two other hotzone projects on the boards similar to the one in Oakland. O'Connell expects to start work on one in Mount Lebanon in February and the other, in Homestead-Munhall, in early spring.

The Mount Lebanon project involves hotzoning a recreation area that includes parkland, swimming pool, ball diamond, skating rink and dance hall. The community put up seed capital to help build the hotzone. The Homestead-Munhall project takes in the important Waterfront business area. The community there is providing a loan.

Once all three hotzones are up and running, subscribers will be able to roam from one to the other. The ultimate goal is to hotzone the whole city. Gdovic admits to some skepticism about the viability of this scheme, but O'Connell is sure it can be done. The trick is to get the city involved.

"We're trying to get an agreement on a joint venture with the City of Pittsburgh," she explains. "We want them to let us use traffic lights [for access points and antennas] so we can cover every bit of Pittsburgh. We're saying, 'We'll give you some of the revenues if you let us use the lights.'"

Traffic lights? They're perfect, O'Connell says -- just the right height to be close to street level coverage areas, but below the level of tree foliage. Tall buildings are no good because, they're too far from street level. After the hassles of securing rights to use lower buildings for the Oakland project, O'Connell has no interest in going through that process again.

The trouble is, the city isn't least not yet. "The project is not a high priority for them," O'Connell admits. "They want to put it on the back burner. I'm there saying, 'No, don't put it on the backburner.' But now we'll probably have to wait until Oakland is up and running. Then we can say, 'See? This is what we're talking about, this is how great it is.'"

Ultimately getting the city to buy in is relatively crucial. Without the street lights the project would be much more expensive and city-wide coverage would probably not be feasible, she admits.

It's a grand plan, to be sure, but just how many areas of Pittsburgh really need coverage. Wouldn't it be better to build islands of coverage only in areas where there are potential subscribers who actually want the service? Only time will tell if Grok's plan is the right one.

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