Welcome to Wi-Fi
MetroFi wireless Web access, now covering part of downtown and the near east side, will be the largest free city network of its kind
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
Portland cuts the cord today, unveiling the first stage of a free wireless network that aspires to make Web access available throughout the city within 18 months.
Today's launch party -- at noon in Pioneer Courthouse Square -- marks the fruition of three years' work dating to 2003 when Wi-Fi "hot spots" were still a novelty. Portland conceived the network as a cheap alternative to Web access from phone and cable companies.
The city contracted with a small Silicon Valley company called MetroFi Inc. that is building, funding and operating the network. Questions remain about the network's capabilities and whether its bargain price is really the best deal for users.
If it works, Portland will be the first city in the nation with a free network on this scale.
"I think it will absolutely be a showcase for MetroFi as well as the city of Portland," said Chuck Haas, the company's chief executive.
"It'll definitely change the way people communicate," he said. "You no longer have to spend your time looking for a place to connect to your friends and family and business associates."
The initial phase of MetroFi's network, online today, covers parts of downtown and Portland's close-in east side. MetroFi plans to expand its service territory early next year, but hasn't said where it will go next. The company's contract calls on it to serve "95 percent" of the city by mid-2008.
With download speeds of 1.5 megabits per second, Web access over MetroFi's network is much faster than dial-up but not as fast as most DSL and cable Internet connections. Last month, Microsoft announced it will partner with MetroFi on the Portland network by directing ads to the service and creating a localized welcome page that displays news, weather and activities when users sign on.
By hiring MetroFi to take on the project, Portland shifted the project's financial risk to its private partner. Portland's risk is mainly cosmetic: The city hasn't committed to pay a dime for Web access, and if the network fails to meet expectations, the cost to taxpayers will be minimal.
California telecom consultant Craig Settles expects trouble anyway, not with MetroFi's technology but with its business plan. While other cities, such as Philadelphia, plan to charge for most Web access, Settles said Portland has been "seduced" by the promise of free service.
Noting that MetroFi is a lightly funded startup building networks in other cities, too, Settles warns that the company could run short of cash before ad revenues kick in. Instead of making a solid business case for its wireless network, Settles said Portland is taking an easy path with unpredictable results.
"A lot of people have bought into that, but that's not a real vision or value," he said. "If the city doesn't have a real good vision and it all fails, then it's going to be a very public failure and a lost opportunity."
Wireless evangelist Esme Vos, who lives in Amsterdam but tracks Wi-Fi projects in the U.S. on the widely followed muniwireless.com site, takes the opposite view. She believes MetroFi's approach is likely to become the norm for Internet access. Vos likens free Web access to broadcast TV or newspapers, where broad audiences created valuable advertising opportunities.
"The value of the network lies in the number of people using it intensively," she said in an e-mail. "So you want to lower the barriers to use as much as possible i.e. by making it free of charge."
The ads that make the free network possible also could turn some users off, said Don Park, president of the volunteer group Personal Telco Project, which helped popularize wireless technology by setting up dozens of free Wi-Fi hot spots around Portland.
"How the ads are inserted could make some (Web) pages not work," Park said, or frustrate users if the ads are too intrusive during their Web surfing.
MetroFi's network likely won't work everywhere, Park said, especially indoors where walls and windows could block a Wi-Fi signal. For that reason, he said, Personal Telco's free Wi-Fi connections may still be in demand at Portland bars and coffee shops.
Where MetroFi's connections are available, though, Park said its free service could have broad appeal.
"It'll definitely work well for some people," Park said.
Personal Telco's work was a main inspiration for Portland's project, according to Marshall Runkel, former aide to Portland Commissioner Erik Sten. Runkel, who was in on the early planning for Portland's Wi-Fi project in 2003, said the city wanted to create a cheap alternative to Web access from phone and cable companies.
Early plans called for some level of free access, Runkel said, though no one knew then how it could be done across Portland.
"Having a vendor in town to build a wireless network for the city with the backing of Microsoft, that's a home run," he said.
But Runkel, who now works for online advocacy group One Economy Corp., said the network is incomplete without tools to help people put it to work. Still needed, he said, is a program to put computers in the hands of low-income residents, and online resources to help them learn how to use the network to find work and educational opportunities.
"We're getting a C right now, and to really get an A, I think we have to think of all these other things," he said.
Mike Rogoway: 503-294-7699, firstname.lastname@example.org