Amherst, MA Graduates to Wi-Fi

By Amy Mayer

October 30, 2007

University of Massachusetts professors collaborate with city officials in Amherst, MA to launch a free, public, Wi-Fi network funded by the Department of Defense.

Computer scientist Brian Levine knows that the public expects other scientists like, say, an ecologist, to be outside conducting experiments. But, he insists that research in his field also depends on real people doing real things in the real world.

Amherst, Massachusetts Town IT director Kristopher Pacunas answered the call when Levine and his colleague Mark Corner, both computer science professors at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, asked whether the Town might be interested in a public wireless network for general use.

"We had no idea where we could take things," Pacunas says. Those initial conversations led to a wireless network with 26 access points in a one-square mile area that includes the whole downtown.

"It's allowing us to do science that we just can't do on paper or in a small room," Levine says. He's interested in what types of interference impede Internet access, for example. He's emphatic that the researchers don't have any interest in what individual users are doing. Rather, he and his colleagues send their own equipment into town to see how well it works with the Wi-Fi system.

Levine and Corner's work is funded through federal grants from the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the central research and development organization for the Department of Defense (DoD). But, because they are not day-to-day network administrators, they delegated selection, purchase, set-up, and maintenance of the system to the Town—and gave them the money to make it possible.

"We went out, we did a bunch of research and ended up with Cisco's solution, which is a wireless mesh solution," Pacunas says. The hardware and installation costs tallied about $150,000, he says, all of which was covered by the research grants. The town, which is home to about 35,000 year-round residents, as well as roughly 30,000 students, was not asked for any capital contributions; its only contribution was the necessary man hours from relevant city employees.

Pacunas says the possibilities created by installing a wireless network include parking meters that accept credit cards and controlling traffic patterns by remotely adjusting stoplights. "Now that the network's up and stabilized we can start to implement some of those things," he says.

During testing, Pacunas says they saw 50-100 people on the network at once. He expects that could increase to as many as a few hundred as the word gets out. There's no registering to use it, prospective users just have to accept the terms, which absolve the Town of any liability. He adds that exactly how people are using the Internet will influence how many simultaneous connections the system can support.

The public 802.11 b/g WLAN uses the Town's 50 Mbps fiber optic line for backhaul. During the work day, the public's access will be limited by how much bandwidth the Town is using for municipal purposes. In the off-hours, almost all of the 50 Mbps will be available for free to public users.

Pacunas is managing traffic using the PacketLogic tool from Procera Networks.

"The thing's awesome, " he says, "it allows us to go in and throttle bandwidth based on the type of traffic or where the traffic's coming from." Beyond controlling how much bandwidth is available to the public versus the Town, he says he can also adjust bandwidth regionally—giving extra to the town common, for example, to accommodate a large event there. He could also cap the amount available for file sharing. But so far, he hasn’t had to.

"We're really trying to let this take its natural course here."

Pacunas says Cisco has been extremely supportive of this deployment because it's innovative.

"We're doing more with these technologies than most of their other clients," he says.

Other communities in Massachusetts, which have successfully deployed public Wi-Fi networks, include Brookline, which launched a border-to-border network this summer that includes both public safety and general public access, and Boston, where the Boston Main Streets WiFi[sic]  Project  has successfully lit up two "main street" districts in Boston. 

While the network is available to the public for free, the terms of use clearly state that users shouldn't rely on the network for full-time coverage—it's intended for occasional use and keeping it running is a low priority for Town staff. In our tests, availability was spotty, but for some residents, free access is better than no access, even if it comes and goes.

Amy Mayer is a freelance writer and independent radio producer based in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Read and listen to her work at her website.



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