A Tale of Two Cities, Part I

By Gerry Blackwell

June 15, 2004

Who needs the backing of the city government? Portsmouth, N.H.'s grassroots hotspots are privately funded and proving successful.

All across the country, citizens groups, municipalities and private companies are looking for ways to spread low- or no-cost Wi-Fi access, to unwire their communities. There are almost as many different approaches and reasons for doing it as there are Wi-Fi communities. Some are grassroots and private sector funded; others are government run. Here's a look at one that's the former.

In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a port city of 20,000 on the eastern seaboard, a small group of enthusiasts and private sponsors is lighting up the town one hotspot at a time with only minimal support from the municipality through the local Chamber of Commerce.

The city's eCoast Wi-Fi Project, formerly the Portsmouth Wi-Fi Project, originally came together last summer, pushed along by volunteers and private sector sponsors in the city's high-tech community. This year it's back, with a second hotspot in downtown Prescott Park.

The city is a working port, with one of the deepest harbors on the eastern seaboard, visited by big ocean going vessels. It also has a Naval shipyard, high-tech companies, and tourist attractions such as the Strawberry Banke historic village.

"There are a lot of different things going on in this very small city," notes Scott Campbell, co-founder of the Wi-Fi Project and proprietor of D. Scott Campbell & Associates Public Relations. "The project benefits all of them tangentially, but tourism is the one thing that really lit up the Chamber's eyes."

Campbell and one of his clients, Erik Crago of PortCity Web, a local Web design and software company, originally got interested in the idea of doing something with Wi-Fi after watching the progress of a Wi-Fi project in nearby Boston.

"We thought, wouldn't it be neat if we could do something like that," Campbell recalls. "We thought we could make a lot of money on it, but then when we researched the business plans out there, we didn't like any of them. So we said, let's just do it for free, as a kind of pilot trial, as a lark."

Both were members of the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce and active in the eCoast Technology Roundtable, a Chamber and city-funded organization tasked with promoting development of the high-tech economy in the area. They convinced eCoast to take the Wi-Fi project under its wing.

The plan was to start with one central hotspot. When Campbell and Crago went looking for a possible site, they immediately lit on the Chamber's outdoor tourist information kiosk right in the heart of the city's downtown.

The kiosk is surrounded by three or four coffee shops and other retail businesses, plus a church. It closes for the winter, but that wasn't a problem since not many would be sitting outside with their laptops past November anyway.

"It looks a little like a light house," Campbell says of the kiosk. "When we peered inside [the attic], there was an old yellow phone jack there. Bingo! We had copper. All we had to do was turn on the phone service and get DSL in there."

It took several weeks for Verizon to do that. In the meantime, Campbell and Crago went "trolling" for sponsors. It found a key sponsor in local CLEC Bayring Communications, which agreed to provide backhaul from the kiosk hotspot site and DSL-grade Internet access.

The site went live in June of 2003. Its founders frankly had no idea what kind of reception it would get, but they wanted to be able to track it. Crago configured the router to issue unique IP addresses to each device that logged on.

"We had 600 unique devices log on," Campbell says. "We didn't know what to expect at the start. We had no idea how many Wi-Fi devices there might be out there. Six hundred was phenomenal to us. In the beginning, Erik and I were saying, well, we knew we would both use it, so that was two at least."

Users came from all over, not just the city itself. One "New York City ad executive" staying at a beach community near Portsmouth was frustrated at not being able to get high-speed access in the area, until a friend pointed out that he could get it via the eCoast hotspot while grabbing a coffee in town.

"I can't tell you how many phone calls and e-mails and pats on the back we got, thanking us for doing this," Campbell says.

The hotspot covers a swath of the city's downtown about 500 feet in three directions from the kiosk, taking in, among other businesses, a local Starbucks.

"They obviously have not implemented the T-mobile solution," Campbell quips. He's referring to the T-Mobile Hotspot service that has put for-fee Wi-Fi hotspots in thousands of Starbucks Coffee Shops.

He claims there was only one company local Wi-Fi company to get its nose out of joint about eCoast offering a free service. Seacoast Wireless LLC is a small firm that puts hotspots in restaurants. The eCoast hotspot coverage overlapped one or two of Seacoast's properties.

"Apparently there are a couple of tables where you can log on for free or pay for it," Campbell says. "So which one do you think people are going to use?"

He contends that the free eCoast hotspot ultimately helps Seacoast by raising awareness of Wi-Fi access. In general, the project is sensitive to the possibility of interfering with commercial initiatives, Campbell says. For one thing, Bayring doesn't want to see free hotspots "irradiating" apartment buildings and customers canceling their DSL accounts because they can now get access for free.

The free service does, meanwhile, deliver important community-building benefits, which is the reason the Chamber was willing to support it.

"It's an amenity," Campbell says. "Where Wi-Fi really shines is in giving people that last reason to pick one place over another. It's one extra reason for them to stop here."

Campbell and Crago wanted to be able to prove that proposition. In November, they brought in another sponsor, Single Digits, a local company that develops and sells wireless hotspot management software and hosting services.

The Single Digits technology allowed eCoast to implement a survey on a trial basis near the end of last season. Users logging on were forced to complete the questionnaire to get access to the Net. Of the 77 respondents last November, half were from outside the city.

The survey is back this year at both the hotspots, and Campbell figures that if half the users were visitors in November, visitors will represent an even bigger chunk of users during the coming summer season.

If that can be proven, it may encourage the city to get more involved. The mayor and city manager came out for the festive "wire cutting" for the new Prescott Park hotspot a few weeks ago -- and asked about the possibility of lighting up a nearby pool and recreation complex.

That the city has not been more involved to this point says something about the political and cultural environment in New Hampshire, Campbell says.

"There's this hands-off, Yankee ingenuity, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps thing here that's really ingrained. We didn't even think of going to the city. We probably could have, maybe should have."

New Hampshirites are suspicious of government intrusion in business life, especially anything that smacks of waste or increases in taxes. There are no state income or sales taxes, Campbell notes. After a story about the Prescott Park wire cutting appeared in the local paper, one elderly resident wrote an angry letter to the editor decrying the frivolous use of tax payers' money -- not realizing that the project was entirely sponsored by private sponsors.

eCoast has no immediate plans to increase the coverage area, Campbell says, and he and Crago and the other volunteers and sponsors have no immediate plans to try and rope the city or other levels of government in to the project -- though he expects that will eventually happen.

"I think if we weren't all running small businesses 24/7 we would be more inclined to do more lobbying [for funding]," he says. "As it is, it's just not the top priority."

In stark contrast to Portsmouth, city governments in other places are not only involved in creating wireless communities, they're leading the charge. We'll see more of that in Part II, when we look at Chaska, Minn., where the municipal government is creating a city-wide hotzone using Wi-Fi mesh technology from Tropos and selling Wi-Fi Internet access service in competition with commercial service providers.



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