By Ed Sutherland
From Long Beach to New Orleans, cities and communities across the U.S. are looking to public Wi-Fi hotzones as the latest form of urban renewal. Will 802.11 technology become the new drawing card for reviving sagging downtowns?
New Orleans' historic French Quarter is a far cry from the modern air-conditioned glass towers, where phrases like Wi-Fi and hotspots are as common as jambalaya and jazz. The Wi-Fi Switch, a device the size of a large-screen television replacing numerous individual 802.11 access points, could breathe life back into the ailing tourist economy.
During the CTIA Wireless 2003 convention held in New Orleans Mar. 17 through Mar. 19, Vivatos $13,995 Outdoor Wi-Fi Switch beamed a Wi-Fi signal covering the citys historic French Quarter. Michael Valentino, Managing Partner of New Orleans and owner of the http://www.frenchquarter.com/ Web site, said the three-day trial sought to determine whether Wi-Fi could work in the unique, 280-year-old atmosphere.
Valentino hopes the switches would penetrate the dense construction of our area and provide a wireless signal that will allow us to provide scores of useful applications for visitors, residents and businesses.
Wi-Fi Clouds Over NYC
Phil Belanger, marketing vice president for switch-maker Vivato, says the company is already working with members of NYCWireless to provide a cloud of Wi-Fi connectivity over the 843-acre New York City's Central Park. With 58 miles of pedestrian paths, 26,000 trees and more than 20 million visitors yearly, Belanger says the park has iconic importance to the public perception of Wi-Fi. Belanger believes four outdoor switches could blanket the park. He wouldnt offer a date when Central Park would go wireless, saying roof rights and other permissions have yet to be obtained.
Belanger says people are coming out of the woodwork expressing interest in his companys Wi-Fi switching gear. Interest in the devices is coming from as far afield as the Caribbean, where island leaders are investigating the switches for providing public Wi-Fi services.
But Vivato is not alone is fielding inquiries from communities interested in exploring Wi-Fi as an option for urban development.
War Puts Wi-Fi on Hold
Lorenzo Gigliotti of Web site design firm G-Site manages the first of four planned hotzones in the city of Long Beach, CA. Gigliotti says his company has received a number of inquiries from other communities interested in creating their own public hotzones. Discussions with New York City officials also curious about the concept are in limbo with municipal budgets diverted by concern over the U.S-led war on Iraq, Gigliotti says.
Although the Jan. 10 unveiling of a three-block Wi-Fi hotzone along Long Beachs Pine Avenue received much press attention, Gigliotti believes the upcoming Long Beach airport hotzone will be important both for the future direction of the project along with comparing customer needs. As Pine Avenue is Long Beachs restaurant row, users have so far concentrated their searches on dining and entertainment information. Other planned hotzones in the area include the citys marina and a local convention center.
Wi-Fis Economic Developer
The Long Beach hotzone is a partnership between private Wi-Fi vendors and local governmental agencies. Bruce Mayes, the technology guru at the Long Beach Economic Development Bureau, says his office is receiving calls from cities all over interested in duplicating the success of Long Beach.
Although Mayes says the current building period makes it difficult to quantify any results of the hotzones impact on city development, the experience has left him with only one surprise: how well it is working.
Along with G-Site, Vernier Networks is providing the hardware to manage network access and security, while local wireless ISP Color Broadband provides the Internet connection and also network management.
No Silver Bullet
But Mayes warns that a Wi-Fi hotzone is not the silver bullet for pulling a downtown out of the economic doldrums. George Heinitsch tends to agree. Heinitsch is the Chief Technical Officer for Pittsburghs 3 Rivers, a non-profit group of civic and business leaders interested in using information technology to accelerate economic, social and educational development through the use of information technology. 3 Rivers, along with area wireless firm Grok Technology created Grok Secure Connect in the citys Oakland area.
Heinitsch says 3 Rivers is a little disappointed by the hotzones low usage rate. He believes a cold winter may have reduced the number of users and is eagerly awaiting the return of warmer weather. The hotzone extends two mile and includes a college campus and many commercial venues.
How is the public responding to the new hotzone? The public loves hotspots, says Heinitsch. As long as they dont have to pay for them.