Utility to Offer Community-Wide Wi-Fi

By Eric Griffith

May 09, 2003

On Saturday, Benton County, Wash., will see the unveiling of one of the first city-wide (and soon county-wide) 802.11 networks open to homes and businesses, all powered by the cooperation of a motley crew including the power company, local ISPs, an airplane maker, and a software developer.

Kennewick, Wash., sits near the southeastern border of the state; on a map it looks almost equidistant to Seattle, or Salem, Ore., or even Boise, Idaho. While somewhat isolated, the Tri-Cities area (Kennewick with Pasco and Richland) area has grown a lot since just the 1940s, with about 150,000 people in Benton County as of 2001.

The area has become a haven for some of the intellectual elite working for the government, as highly secure research is always underway at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation -- home of the last site selected to assist in World War II's Manhattan Project, a move that displaced some 1,500 people, forced to give up their homes for the war effort. It's said Benton County has more Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) recipients per capita than anywhere in the United States.

And yet, even in this day and age, the area lacked affordable broadband, with most homes and businesses getting by with dial-up Internet connections.

That was until Project Durango came along.

Tomorrow, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., will symbolically "cut the cord" (scissoring a phone line attached to a modem) to officially launch one of the first community-wide wireless broadband networks powered by a public utility and its partners.

Power to the People

Since 1998, Benton Public Utility District (PUD), the power supplier for the county, along with other PUDs throughout the northwest United States have had an agreement to lease dark fiber put in place by the Bonneville Power Administration. These lines are used for power generation operation, but that only takes about 3 percent of their capacity. So, as of 2001, Benton PUD had connected to the fiber to create a network backbone that could serve high-speed Internet access to every building in the Tri-Cities area.

The problem was actually getting it to those buildings. The cost of running fiber to every location, and doing the fiber-to-Ethernet conversion so customers' computers could access it, could have run in the millions of dollars. They needed a final-mile solution that would work for anyone and not cost as much as a Hollywood studio movie.

The final decision: Go with Wi-Fi. Access points with amplified antennas could be installed on the light poles throughout the area -- not a problem since Benton PUD owns them -- and on buildings wherever the dark spots might be. Those high-powered units would broadcast an 802.11b signal to any and all homes and businesses that wanted the service.

The access points, from YDI Wireless, are encased in heated, weatherproof boxes that connect directly to the fiber going to the Internet. They were installed at the power poles by Lockheed-Martin Information Technology, the system integrator for the project.

Project Durango is not a free-Net project meant to give no-cost Internet access to anyone who wants it. The Benton PUD needs to make money. What they didn't want to do was become an ISP with the hassles of dealing with billing, technical support, etc.

In a move similar to what Cometa Networks plans for its business model, the Benton PUD has built the infrastructure but is leaving the sales of service to multiple ISPs.

"Under Washington state law they have to provide open access -- it has to be retailed by multiple ISPs. Any ISP that wants access to the network can distribute the services," says Tim Zenk, vice president marketing for Chameleon Technology.

Seattle-based Chameleon is a contract partner with the Benton PUD on Project Durango. The company's Service Provider Broadband Suite is the software at the heart of the wireless service, providing central management for the service providers using the network. It sits on the network itself, hosted by the Benton PUD, and lets the individual ISPs set what they need.

The software supports a public key infrastructure (PKI) <DEFINE: PKI> encryption, so Zenk says there's no need for other security measures on the access point or on subscriber's computers. In fact, for things to work properly for a Project Durango connection, no security can be turned on -- no WEP, no WPA, etc. The access points have to be open to all. The security is embedded in the network.

Connections are relatively simple. Users with single computers can just use a typical off-the-shelf 802.11b card (and perhaps an extra antenna if needed for those out of range). Those with home or small office networks might have to setup an access point in bridge mode to service all their clients.

When new users open their Web browser, they will be redirected to a screen listing the ISPs that provide service through Project Durango, where they can instantly sign up. Computers are then forced to download a client piece of software that will handle all user provisioning and encryption/decryption of data going in and out.

So far, only two ISPs have signed on to provide services: Amerion and One World Telecommunications. Others may join at any time. Even the few local providers of broadband connections are welcome to become wireless providers through the project, since the law requires that the utilities must offer the service wholesale.

More than just homes and businesses will be able to use the network. The Benton County Sheriff's office, for example, can use it right from police cruisers, as the network will offer subnet-roaming for users moving from access point to access point.

The Price of Wireless

Zenk says he expects the cost of service to be comparable to broadband cable or DSL -- around $40 to $50 per month for about 1Mbps of download bandwidth.

Of course, the ISPs can compete on price and how big a pipe they offer, customized per customer. With a point-to-point connection, the connection can go up to 11Mbps with the 802.11b access points. Zenk says with multiplexing, they could offer up to 100Mbps off the fiber.

He estimates that the entire project will cost under $500,000 to get off the ground, and says that compared with the thousands it would have cost to go to each home and building with fiber, that's a major cost savings.

"They need to be able to recover these costs," says Zenk. "They need to at least break even, and you can't do that with fiber."

For Phase I of the launch of Project Durango, about eight square miles of Kennewick's Clearwater business area will be covered. The trial has been underway for about three months already.

"We've found 802.11 to be highly reliable," says Zenk. "The fiber people might like us to go away, but this is what happens -- entrepreneurs find ways to do things that aren't the way the standard was officially presented."

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