Portland Plans for Metro-Scale Wi-Fi

By Eric Griffith

June 30, 2005

The city council of Oregon's tech hub—already No. 4 in the Most Unwired Cities survey—has unanimously decided to get wireless city-wide.

By the end of the August, the city of Portland, Oregon's Bureau of Technology Services will issue a request for proposals (RFP) to "Unwire Portland." The move was approved by the city council yesterday. Proposals from vendors and ISPs will be due by September 28, 2005, with deployment to start during the holiday season.

Nigel Ballard, the wireless director for local WISP Matrix Networks is also the director of the Portland Telecommunications Steering Committee. He said in a statement that the city has "defined a downtown grid that will be our phase one Wi-Fi hotspot."

The network will provide free online access to information from some non-profit services including health care and transportation, but will charge a fee for anyone looking for high-speed Internet surfing. There will be day-pass fees and monthly subscription pricing, though cost is not determined and will depend on the ISPs using the network (see below).

The city plans to make towers it owns available for the network, which will include provisions to support WiMax for long distance use, including hooking the city school systems into the network at no cost.

Hoping to avoid the debate raised in some areas by metro Wi-Fi critics over the use of taxpayer funds, the RFP will seek private companies to deploy and run the network, but without using taxpayer money. The cost is expected to run between $10 and $25 million. The Unwire Portland FAQ says that as an anchor tenant, "the City will potentially buy services on the Network, initially services it currently contracts for at reduced rates, and eventually new services that will help the City streamline its processes and reduce its costs."

Other ISPs will be able to share the network as well. Earthlink, for example, told The Oregonian that municipal Wi-Fi networks may be very important to the company as an alternative to getting access via DSL and cable (a process likely more difficult after the recent Supreme Court ruling.) Earthlink is also one of many companies likely to submit an RFP—it did so for the Wireless Philadelphia project, which should be announcing a network provider sometime in July.

Unwire Portland's more unique aspects could include an upgrade to the city's SmartMeters, the solar powered parking meters. PTSC estimates the city could save thousands of dollars per year if the meters are retrofitted to use Wi-Fi.

City workers and first responders will also be on the network. "Portland Fire Service intends to use the Wi-Fi network to load time-critical GIS mapping data and scheduled road maintenance and closures directly to emergency vehicles," according to the PTSC announcement.

Ballard is also a director of the non-profit Personal Telco Project, a volunteer group attempting to put high-speed wireless throughout Portland one hotspot at a time. Personal Telco is a major reason for the city's high placement in Intel's Most Unwired Cities survey. The city had placed at No. 1 in the first survey, conducted in 2003, but this year fell behind to the No. 4 position as other cities installed more Wi-Fi.

Earlier this month Verizon Wireless launched its BroadbandAccess wireless broadband network and V CAST video on demand services in Portland (as well as farther north in Seattle, WA). Both services use 1xEV-DO, a CDMA-based 3G technology, to provide everything from video clips on phones to full Web surfing and e-mail on laptops with EV-DO support—it doesn't use Wi-Fi. EV-DO download speeds are between 300 to 500 Kilobits per second (Kbps). Future versions of EV-DO will go has high as 3.1 Megabits per second (Mbps) download, compared to the Wi-Fi standard of 802.11g which can usually deliver do from 15 to 25 Mbps. BroadbandAccess from Verizon Wireless cost $80 per month.



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