Downtown Wi-Fi

In the early 2000s, major municipalities tried to deploy citywide Wi-Fi with limited success. Today, several northwest Georgia cities are successfully providing public Wi-Fi in their downtowns areas. This “best practice” article looks at how our communities succeeded where big cities didn’t—such as focus on particular areas—including why it might be good to have publicly accessible Wi-Fi, and the basics of deploying and managing public Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi (also known as wireless Ethernet) is a wireless computer networking technology that has been around since the late 1990s. It’s a great way to provide flexible Internet access because Wi-Fi doesn’t require expensive, inconvenient wires to connect. And, it is easy to control who can connect, or not. For these reasons Wi-Fi has become a common amenity in coffee shops, hotels, and restaurants. Many universities, schools, hospitals, and other institutions blanket their facilities with secure Wi-Fi, and provide public access for visitors.

Contents

Why Public Wi-Fi?

There are basically two ways to use Wi-Fi in a community. On one hand, public employees and officials can use Wi-Fi to access applications and information they need to serve citizens. The reason to do this is simply to improve essential services, including public works, utilities, safety, health, education, etc. Of course, while Wi-Fi for these purposes might be publicly owned, access should be closed, limited to authorized persons, and secure. On the other hand, Wi-Fi can be open for anyone to access the Internet, which is the focus of this article. Why provide free, open public Internet access? Read on! But first, note that a Wi-Fi network can provide both open and closed access, if it is built with all kinds of public uses in mind.

Enhancing quality of place

One reason to have an open Wi-Fi Internet access is to provide an amenity to citizens and visitors. “We’re trying to attract people to come downtown and stay downtown,” said Cartersville Mayor Matt Santini, “In our society today everyone has to be connected to something.” Cartersville’s downtown Wi-Fi complements the city’s amphitheatre, park benches, and shops with an easy way to stay connected.
The City of Ringgold, working with the Ringgold Telephone Company (RTC), initially provided Wi-Fi at its ball fields, near downtown. It then deployed Wi-Fi at the Ringgold Depot, the city’s old railroad depot that has been renovated into to event facility. In both locations, the Wi-Fi allows people attending events to share their experiences in real-time, promoting the events, the facilities, and the city. Most recently, Ringgold expanded the Wi-Fi to cover more of the downtown area, between the ball fields and the Depot. The city plans to deploy Wi-Fi in a couple other event venues where a lot of people will be gathering. “Any time someone is at an event and posts it on Facebook,” notes Ringgold’s Main Street manager, Rhonda Johnson, “that’s advertising and marketing for Downtown Ringgold.” Ringgold has a promotional “splash page” that all users see, as well as terms & conditions to which users must agree before they get Internet access. This is a great way to push information to users while reducing liabilities and risks.

Providing digital public services

The City of Rome started deploying Wi-Fi nearly a decade ago, according to Rome’s IT Director, Johnny Bunch. Since then many downtown merchants have set up their own Wi-Fi. Last year there were nearly 30 Wi-Fi hotspots in downtown Rome. This presents two issues. First, it creates a jumble of services that can be confusing to consumers. Which Wi-Fi network should I use? Which has the best connection? Which is secure? Second, some of the merchants consider their Wi-Fi to be a proprietary asset and they don’t want “competition.” This is an issue in spite of the fact that providing Wi-Fi generates costs and risks but doesn’t generate any revenue. Essentially, merchants have to be “sold” on public Wi-Fi as a service that will reduce confusion, improve connectivity, attract more business, and reduce merchants’ costs.

The City of Rome avoided these issues by focusing its Wi-Fi deployment on public spaces, particularly the Rome-Floyd County Heritage Trail System along the Oostanaula River. Rome also focused on applications. They put quick response (QR) codes—images that have digital data embedded in them—along the trail that play bird calls when the codes are read by digital devices. Rome deployed a smartphone application, MyRome, for citizens to report public works issues. City administrators can use MyRome to dispatch work crews and track completion of work to address the issues. Rome also uses the CodeRED mobile application for notifying citizens about emergencies and targeting emergency responses.

There is a huge variety such applications for education, health, safety, utilities, etc. While most don’t require Wi-Fi, wireless makes access much easier and flexible, and thereby makes the software more effective. “Technology is an important piece of what we do because we are a service organization” said Cartersville Mayor Santini, “Technology is important to provide services as efficiently as possible.”

Public Wi-Fi as an economic asset

While free Wi-Fi isn’t going to be a money-maker, it can be an economic asset in other ways. It can enable users to save money and be more productive, and it can be used to build customer relationships with users. When deployed with a “captive portal,” Wi-Fi can generate advertising revenue and valuable data. More broadly, public Wi-Fi sends an important message to citizens and visitors.

Enabling people with access to information

Information is absolutely essential for people to be productive, prosperous members of society, to contribute to the economy. For some, public Wi-Fi is a way stay connected. For others, it’s a way to be part of the digital economy. Public Wi-Fi improves access to information and can even help people earn more and find employment. Most libraries provide Wi-Fi in order to make sure everyone can access online resources. Some schools provide public access for similar reasons.

Getting more from your bandwidth

Public Wi-Fi can come down to “bulk discount” on bandwidth. Businesses and institutions typically pay for more internet access than they need or use. Meanwhile, some people are paying usage fees to their cellular telephone providers for mobile data. At the same time, other people simply can’t afford or get high-speed internet service—broadband—at home. Public Wi-Fi let’s people get online without worrying about fees because they’re using bandwidth that’s already been paid for but isn’t being used. Free can be a liability if telecom providers see public Wi-Fi as a substitute for broadband. In Ringgold, “Businesses are more than welcoming,” Rhonda Johnson has found “They see it as a money-saving way to offer an amenity.” But the businesses still see the value of having their own private broadband connections. Downtown areas are ideal for public Wi-Fi because they are where all of these come together: excess bandwidth that’s already paid for, tech-savvy users who prefer not to pay data usage fees, and economically disadvantaged persons who want to do better. The public Wi-Fi builds on and complements the value of broadband services.

Adding value to services

The way we work has changed. Businesses, and increasingly workers, have to be online. People don’t just hang out at coffee shops; they’re often doing paid work or school work while they sip their lattes. Wi-Fi in hotels, libraries, restaurants, and schools are all used for work. Wi-Fi is provided on public transportation in some cities (none in northwest Georgia, as far as we know) so people can work while they ride. This is not just about helping low-income people. Public Wi-Fi adds value to services, just as it complements public spaces, because it enables people to be productive while they use services they’re paying for. It makes sense to pay for broadband, but it also makes sense to share it with your customers. This aspect of Wi-Fi really makes sense if the Wi-Fi can provide information about and for your customers.

Informing and understanding customers

Web portals that “capture” anyone connecting to a Wi-Fi network can be used for advertising and to gather customer insights. Many open Wi-Fi networks require users to agree to terms of service before they can connect. Captive portals are just an extension of this. Users are automatically redirected to a particular site, and may have access to a limited set of websites that comprise a “walled garden.” The portal could feature advertisements, special offers, or links to websites within the walled garden. They may be required to provide some basic information—email, home zip code, name, etc.—as well as agree to terms and services. These tactics allow the Wi-Fi operator to gather information about use and even the economic impacts of the Wi-Fi.

Demonstrating tech savviness

Public Wi-Fi is about more than just getting business people, creative types, and technologists to hang out and have a Danish while they drink their coffee. “Technology is right up there with what’s going to attract new business,” Rhonda Johnson maintained “Along with other things it’s going to be the answer for how to bring smaller, technology companies to Ringgold.” It’s about being cool and smart—the community, that is, not the customer. “You want to make sure you’re dealing with companies that are technically astute,” noted Cartersville Mayor Santini. The same is true for cities. “Technology is a gauge of keeping up to date,” he said, “and shows that the community ‘gets it.’” Merchants may want their own Wi-Fi to differentiate from others, but Wi-Fi proliferation can confuse users and result in interference between signals. Visitors might much Wi-Fi as a message: “People here don’t work together on technology. They don’t really get it.”

The Four Keys to Successful Downtown Wi-Fi

1. A Partnership… and Leadership

The first thing you need to deploy public Wi-Fi is a partnership. It is much easier and effective if local government, merchants, and providers work together. In Cartersville, according to Mayor Santini, “The wi-fi went from idea to implementation is a very short period because everything was in place and everyone was aware of the important.” Possibly, most importantly, is a technology partner. For example, Ringgold Telephone Company (RTC) not only provides bandwidth, it also operates a lab for testing Wi-Fi equipment.

It is important to understand who stands to benefit (or not) from the public Wi-Fi. Technologists may help build the network as a community project just because it’s an interesting challenge. But technologists—and their employers—are going to be more enthusiastic about public Wi-Fi is it enables them to generate revenue. Remember: Nothing is free. Someone has to pay, someone’s going to get paid, and others who might like to get paid are not going to get paid. Those who stand to benefit are potential partners. Someone has to get actual partners together to figure out how to get maximum value for all. And, the partners must be prepared to overcome active or passive resistance by those who won’t benefit from or just don’t care about it. In other words, public Wi-Fi requires leadership.

2. A Purpose

It is easier to get partners if you have a clear purpose that the Wi-Fi serves. Is the goal to provide an amenity for those who already spend time downtown, at the park, or wherever the Wi-Fi is to be deployed? Is the goal to attract different or more people? Is it to promote activities, assets, businesses, etc.? Is it to increase economic opportunity or support education? Is it to make money or sell services? Does it need to support particular applications? Wi-Fi can be a major investment. A purpose not only justifies the investment, it’s the starting point for measure impact and return on investment. For example, why should the local tech or telecom company help? Does the Wi-Fi generate income for them or promote their services? Remember, this is about growing the digital economy, which means increasing revenue for digital services companies.

3. A Place

As a local-area network technology, Wi-Fi covers a particular place. It’s important to be clear about exactly what that place is. A Wi-Fi network is composed of access points to which devices connect via radio waves. Wi-Fi only goes so far and through so much. Dense materials can block it and other radio transmitters can interfere with it. How much area is there? What kind of buildings have to be covered, and what is the terrain like? Do people move in and out of the place? While Wi-Fi is wireless, it is not mobile, so if users move very far or too fast they will lose their connections. A single Wi-Fi system can cover multiple places, such that users can go from place to place, but this requires additional hardware and each place has to connect to centralized software. It is important to consider all of this from the outset.

4. A Plan

A plan for deploying Wi-Fi will help ensure it performs well and keep costs down. There are three general approaches to public Wi-Fi. The first is a high-end, enterprise- or carrier-carrier class approach. This approach is most expensive and requires the most planning but it provides the most robust, risk-free, and reliable network. It is best when the project involves numerous stakeholders with high expectations, particularly paying customers.

The second approach is an ad hoc, low cost approach, which is essentially just to put out some access points and see what happens. There are a lot of risks inherent in this approach and it won’t result in a secure or stable network. It is only appropriate when there are few stakeholders, low expectations, and no real budget.

Lastly, there’s the open-source approach, which essentially involves convening a team of technologists to use readily available technologies, including open-source software, to organically construct a network. This approach involves a significant amount of planning—and costs—but it really requires a lot of collaboration. It is best when stakeholders are actively involved, expect to learn about the technology by “playing” with the network, and are willing to contribute hardware and services.

The planning should involve—or at least consider—all of the partners. It should focus on the purpose agreed to by the partners, and should be tailored to the place(s) the Wi-Fi will cover. The plan should have a budget—including revenue as well as costs for all components, hardware, software, services, etc.—and a timeline with tasks assignments. And, the plan needs to constantly evolve to meet changing needs, tap new opportunities, and use new technologies.

Some Technical Info

As noted above, Wi-Fi consists of radio-based access points (APs) and operates on one or more radio frequencies, or channels. Access points are connected together via wires or wirelessly to form a network. Each network has a name, called an SSID (Service Set IDentifier), which can be broadcast so it is easy to find or not. Radio frequencies have to be set up carefully to avoid interference between APs, with other radio devices, and to support multiple networks (an open public network and a closed private network, for example). Generally, APs should be elevated and should not be behind dense materials like concrete in order to provide the best coverage. Each AP requires electrical power to operate.

APs can be centrally controlled or not. An AP controller makes it possible to monitor the entire network, as well as each AP. The controller controls everything from connections to APs and security to channel assignments and performance. At very least, an AP will have network agent software running so it can be secured (i.e., password protected) and controlled. Many APs, especially those that are integrated with routers, have additional software that allows them to be managed independently. Either way, the level and type of control over an AP is determined by software.

A Wi-Fi network is connected to other networks—including the Internet—via routers or gateways, which also provide additional access control (i.e., password protected). Routers simply direct network traffic via the quickest or shortest route to its destination. At least one router must connect to an Internet service provider (ISP) in order for Wi-Fi users to have Internet access. This costs money, of course, and some ISP don’t allow their connections to be shared.

Multiple APs can connect to a single router, or each AP can have it’s own router. The latter configuration allows multiple access points to be connected in a wireless mesh network, which are very flexible. The former configuration is better for centralized management, which allows for more control. A gateway filters and translates network content and is, by definition, a central point through which all traffic must pass to get from one network to another. Gateways provide a lot of control over who can use a network and for what.

Fully secured networks have authentication, authorization, and accounting (AAA) services that give specific users specific access and track users’ access and usage. AAA not only controls whether particular devices can connect to a network, they also manage access to applications and data. Thus they are like the gatekeepers to all of the secured resources on a network and provide a foundation for other applications.

A portal is a type of software—usually a web page—via which users access a range of services. As discussed above, Wi-Fi networks can be set up with a portal that captures all users, features advertising, links to walled garden websites, presents terms and conditions, etc. The portal has to reside on a server—a computer that serves up the portal software to client devices. While users may enter information, including but not limited to a password, via a portal, a gateway or other devices actually control access to and through the portal. The portal passes users’ information on to these other services.

A Wi-Fi network can consist of a single integrated AP-router. Or numerous AP points connected via multiple routers to a centralized gateway providing access to various services, including the Internet, based on AAA can comprise a Wi-Fi network. A portal can be very simple or can have tons of content and special services for users, including revenue-generating services. The difference between these alternatives is simply one of control and costs. The more control, the higher the cost. The best way to effectively balance control and costs is to have great partners, a clear purpose, focused on a particular place, and a plan for deploying a network that meets the purpose.

Resources

The Wi-Fi Alliance (http://www.wi-fi.org/) is a non-profit industry association for companies that produce and operate Wi-Fi technologies.

The Open Technology Institute (OTI) provides a complete open-source approach to public Wi-Fi in its Commotion wireless mesh networking guide, which is online at https://commotionwireless.net/about/

There are several major Wi-Fi equipment vendors:

The Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP) directory lists all of the companies currently providing Wi-Fi or similar services, online at http://www.wispdirectory.com/.