U-District's Wi-Fi project gets mixed reception

The Seattle Wi-Fi Project - a pilot program that provides free, limited-range wireless Internet access - has experienced limited success since its debut in May 2005, especially in the University District.

Though the Internet service for all three sectors of the Wi-Fi Project (it also services Columbia City and select city parks) is from the strong connection at the University of Washington, some project leaders say that unexpected hardware and software problems have hampered use of the service.

"We've been working on it for six to eight months, but it's been a challenge of hardware and software from the city," said Teresa Lord Hugel, director of the Greater University Chamber of Commerce. The chamber was a key player in finding funding for the Seattle Wi-Fi Project in the U-District.

"We're still the most active of the three [Wi-Fi locations], but the system goes down and resets itself," she added.

The real problem, according to Community Technology Planner David Keyes, isn't hardware or system crashes. Instead, the biggest challenge has been providing a strong enough signal from the telephone poles that broadcast the Wi-Fi signal.

"When we're transmitting from city poles, the Wi-Fi signal doesn't always penetrate deeply into buildings from the street. What that has meant is that in some places, if someone is up in a second floor or in a back office, then it's difficult to connect to the Wi-Fi signal," Keyes said. "We've learned the technological capacity of Wi-Fi."

Limited connectivity

The primary goal of the Seattle Wi-Fi Project is to send wireless Internet signals into businesses and parks. City officials believe that this service will not only promote local businesses, but reduce costs for owners as well.

But Keyes and Hugel said that in the U-District especially, few people are able to connect to the service from inside businesses.

"Sometimes people can see 'Seattle Wi-Fi' [on their screen], so they are receiving the signal from us. But their Wi-Fi antenna isn't strong enough to transmit back to our antennas.

"I've had a [contact] at [Northeast] 43rd [Street] and Brooklyn [Avenue Northeast] that was experiencing that," she related. 'If he went on the Ave, he was fine, but when he was farther away he was having some problems," Keyes said.

He added that tree foliage, wind and clouds have the ability to affect Wi-Fi service.

Helping businesses?

The next step for the pilot project, according to the Office of Economic Development's Nancy Yamamoto, is to study the effects that the free service has had on businesses. "We need to assess how successful the project has been," she said.

"We just had a chamber meeting where we talked about doing a survey of the various businesses to see what kind of impact it has made as far as how business has increased," Yamamoto said.

Because the project is focused around helping business, Keyes said that the main questions to be asked are, "Is it bringing more people to the stores? Is it helping the businesses survive and thrive? Is it something that's useful for the businesses themselves?"

If they can save some money and sustain, then that's great, he added.

Accessible already

What the city might not have assessed in 2005, however, is the number of businesses in the U-District that had Wi-Fi long before the pilot project began.

"They can't [connect to the Seattle Wi-Fi network] in our store because we have other Wi-Fi connections," said a manager at Pizzeria Pagliacci.

Employees at other businesses such as Starbucks, Café Allegro and Big Time Brewery said that they were unaware of the Seattle Wi-Fi Project and that they were offering Internet access before the pilot project began.

Keyes added that the city's commitment to Wi-Fi as its Internet signal provider is very thin.

He said that one of the goals regarding city-provided Internet access is residential signals that allow for two-way video conferencing.

"Real-time, two-way video over wireless is not going to [happen] real soon," he said. "The city should see if they can work quicker to get more access to fiber-optic connections.

"Wi-Fi is definitely picking up, but fiber optics to the home is our end goal," Keyes said.

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