WiFi's Cloudy Future 

Could the City's Plans Kill Free Wireless?

Last Wednesday, July 19, Portland's city council voted unanimously to approve a contract with MetroFi—a California-based internet company—to build a sprawling wireless network that would offer free internet access to 95 percent of the city.

In the process, though, the project could spell disaster for the Personal Telco Project, the nonprofit group that's been providing free wireless service to pockets of the city for nearly six years.

According to MetroFi's figures, the citywide project will cost nearly $10 million to build the network, by placing wireless access equipment, or "nodes," around the city, primarily on utility poles. The city isn't pitching in any money for the project, but is authorized to purchase as much as $16 million's worth of access from the company, becoming the project's "anchor tenant." The rest of the money will be made up from advertising sales (users of the free service will have to contend with constant banner ads) and from subscription sales ($19.95 for ad-free service).

But in order to blanket the city with a wireless cloud, the company will need numerous nodes, all broadcasting very "loudly." This could drown out Personal Telco's nodes, which cover three to four percent of the city, including whole neighborhoods like the Mississippi District.

But in the post-internet boom economy, the question is: What if the for-profit MetroFi project fails? What if there isn't enough revenue in ad sales to subsidize the free service? And since the city isn't contractually obligated to purchase any access from MetroFi, what happens if the project is left with few city funds?

The fear among some Personal Telco "old timers" is that MetroFi's citywide free service may simply go away if it becomes no longer feasible to subsidize it. That would leave MetroFi's pay service drowning out the free, volunteer-run Personal Telco nodes.

"In order for [MetroFi] to do what they're saying they're going to do, they're going to need a lot of access points talking very, very loud," says Tom Higgins, Personal Telco's former director of education. "And in order for ours to still be heard, they're going to have to start screaming."

Some observers see other technical problems with the MetroFi plan. Portland's hills and ubiquitous trees—not to mention multi-story buildings—could soak up the company's signals. The suspicion is that, much like the OHSU aerial tram, the cost of the project could skyrocket in order to get around those complications.

Plus, it could be difficult to stretch the network to the farther, less dense reaches of the city, where many of the city's low-income residents are clustered. Ironically, the city's main goal for the project is to bring access to people who are priced out of it, like many of the residents in outer East and North Portland.

According to Marshall Runkel, a former aide for City Commissioner Erik Sten who worked on the initial stages of the wireless program, "the ability of the project to serve low-income people and the success of the project are linked." In other words, the project's success will be largely judged on how well it meets the needs of Portlanders who can't afford internet access.

Even if the company is able to provide access for free, some observers have concerns about the way the ads will be targeted at low-income users. Since the ads can be tailored for specific neighborhoods, there is some concern that lower-income areas will be flooded with advertising from industries that are considered predatory—like pay day lenders.

No matter what happens, Higgins says the citywide wireless system won't completely kill off Personal Telco or its goals. "We're committed to bringing internet access to people who don't have it and bringing the community together. There are other technological solutions we can use to do that."

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