News

City signals spread of WiFi

By PHILIP PALERMO

The Mirror

Federal Way has been testing the WiFi waters by offering free wireless, or WiFi, Internet access in certain parts of the city.

Now, plans include possibly extending the network along Pacific Highway South.

Interim City Manager Derek Matheson said the city received grant money to help set up a wireless network for police officers.

The WiFi network, he said, offers a lower cost than the city’s previous method of paying a cellular phone company to provide mobile information access for officers on patrol.

City Councilman Jack Dovey suggested offering WiFi access to the public in Federal Way, possibly citywide and possibly for a fee, to help draw people to the city.

“We’ve been talking a lot about economic development in Federal Way,” he said. “Looking around the country, WiFi is something that drives the economy.”

In March 2005, the city council approved the creation of a pilot project to test wireless access in the downtown core and in an area along 21st Avenue Southwest.

At the Finance, Human Services and Regional Affairs Committee meeting on June 27, the city took a look at the pilot project and where it could go in the future.

According to a June 23 staff report, the pilot project included more than four miles of fiber line, 19 wireless access points near 21st Avenue Southwest and two more access points downtown.

Despite the number of access points, the wireless network has proved troublesome in residential areas.

Matheson said the findings indicate trees, houses and other structures that make up the residential areas along 21st Avenue Southwest caused significant interference and hampered the network’s signal strength.

While the network proved successful for police officers, Matheson said the spotty signal meant offering WiFi access in residential areas might not be feasible.

He also said expanding the network to encompass the city wouldn’t be cost-effective, nor would charging a user, especially when private companies such as Comcast offer similar services.

“It probably wouldn’t get the use we envisioned,” he said.

Focusing on WiFi’s benefits

About $360,000 has been spent on the system, according to the city’s estimates.

A survey of network users indicated if the city wanted to charge for the service, users would expect features comparable to other Internet access services such as personal Web space and e-mail.

According to the staff report’s conclusion, establishing services similar to those already offered by private companies and charging residents for Internet access would be expensive and likely unprofitable.

Dovey agreed the city shouldn’t compete with companies for wireless Internet access, adding it could still be a good thing to offer for free.

“It’s just one of the things a city could do for very little money that just makes it a better place to live,” he said.

Matheson said the committee recommended refocusing the WiFi network in the downtown core and expanding the network.

One option, he said, would be to move the equipment in the 21st Avenue Southwest area and install it along State Route 99, from South 272nd Street to South 336th Street.

The city estimated such a system would cost between $15,000 and $20,000 each year to operate and maintain.

An expansion downtown would likely mean an increased marketing push.

The city publicized the pilot project at first, Matheson said, but there haven’t been any advertisements lately.

During a recent trip to Spokane, Matheson said he noted signs in the city that touted a free WiFi network. Federal Way may look into similar signage, he said.

Dovey said while the pilot project wasn’t advertised much, as the network matures it could become a big selling point for the city.

“We haven’t advertised a lot. We wanted to make sure it worked,” he said. “We need to get the word out to people. It’s a good thing to market.”

The full city council is expected to consider the option in the coming weeks.

Whether the council approves expanding the network downtown, Matheson said WiFi has become a big deal for cities.

“I think more and more, Internet access is what electricity was 80 years ago,” he said. “It’s absolutely essential to economic development.”

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