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By Gerry Blackwell
Commercial hotspot network operators should be very afraid of what's happening in Long Beach, CA. Very afraid.
The for-pay hotspot operators already know about the threat from freenet activists building ad hoc networks of privately owned and managed Wi-Fi hotspots. Loose-knit groups of network nerds are one thing... Long Beach is quite another.
In that former navy town 30 miles south of Los Angeles, the Economic Development Bureau has partnered with local high-tech businesses to establish a three-block Wi-Fi hotzone along Pine Avenue, the city's restaurant row. However, unlike some other city-sponsored hotzones, it's completely free.
Starting January 10, users only had to turn on their laptops or PDAs, launch their browsers, key in an e-mail address on the pop-up log-on screen and they'd automatically be routed to a the http://www.longbeachportals.com/ portal page. From there, they can go anywhere they like on the Web.
The Pine Avenue hotzone is one of four planned by Long Beach. Others will be located at the local airport (scheduled for launch in late February or early March), a nearby convention center and the city's marina.
"We really haven't done anything that grassroots organizations haven't done in other places," notes Lorenzo Gigliotti of G-site Web & Consulting, one of the project's local private sector partners and manager of the Long Beach portal site. He's referring to the free service aspect.
This is true, except the Long Beach project has the city's stamp of approval on it and city money behind it. The city has a business plan to generate revenues to maintain it, but that money won't come from end users. All of which makes Long Beach different, and more ominous for commercial competitors -- however great it sounds for Long Beach residents and visitors.
Will other municipalities go the same route? Could free, tax-payer-subsidized wireless access be the expected thing in a few years?
"I think that's a very strong possibility," says Gigliotti. "We've already spoken to a number of entities representing business districts and other cities. They're very interested in what we're doing here in Long Beach."
The project grew out of a brainstorming session with local businesses to try and come up with ways to implement the Economic Development Bureau's vision for city renewal. When the navy base and shipyard closed down a few years ago, Long Beach took a major economic hit. Now it's trying to "redesign" itself, according to Gigliotti.
The notion of making Long Beach a wireless city was one of the ideas that sparked the bureau as well as local business leaders. What interested the bureau about the free hotzone idea was the opportunity it afforded to promote the city to visitors via the portal site -- especially to representatives of very desirable high-tech companies.
"The goal was to attract as much outside attention to Long Beach as possible," says Gigliotti. "The city is really opening itself up and embracing new businesses right now. In particular, we'd like to see more technology companies come here. The city has a number of incentive programs to lure them. There's a very strong push for that from the bureau, and this is part of it."
The local private sector partners saw the benefits in general of promoting their home town, but they also saw specific opportunities for themselves. Three local companies chipped in with equipment and/or services in kind to make the project viable:
The network is "truly wireless," Gigliotti says. Color Broadband has multiple DS-3s (43Mbps) coming in from the Internet to support its business WISP operations. A roof-mounted point-to-point U-NII-band radio provides an 8-Mbps link to Pine Avenue, where the receiver is cross connected to one of three Intermec Technologies access points. The access points, mounted on light posts, relay the signal along the street.
The network can support as many as a couple of hundred simultaneous users, says Color Broadband president Sean LeMons. Users share about 2Mbps, but that could be bumped up to 8Mbps in case of congestion. As it is, the 10 to 20 users who log on each day for periods ranging from a few mintutes to an hour are getting the full 2Mbps.
The hotzone project has a solid base, but donations and volunteerism will only go so far. The Long Beach Economic Development Bureau plans to defray the costs of maintaining the network by selling ad space at the portal site to local merchants.
"One of the pluses to this, we're telling advertisers, is, 'We already have somebody right in your neighbourhood, so why not take the opportunity to sell your business to them?'" Gigliotti says. "'We have a very targeted audience of people that could be across the street from your premises right now.'"
Besides raising money to help maintain the network, this will also create business opportunities, for Gigliotti among others -- building new Web sites for merchants or making their existing sites more PDA-friendly. Project organizers see users of Wi-Fi-equipped PDAs as an important part of the target market. Pocket PC-type PDAs in particular are working well on the network, Gigliotti notes.
There are other business opportunities for the partners. Network coverage currently extends 10 to 15 feet into the shop fronts along Pine Avenue, says LeMons. The intention was to cover mainly the restaurants' outdoor patios -- Long Beach boasts a warm dry climate that means outdoor spaces get year-round use.
But Color Broadband is now talking to some retaurateurs about installing additional access points to create microcells that would extend coverage further into their premises. Gigliotti speculates that local business people will want to access Flash-based Web presentations to wow clients they're wining and dining inside some of Pine Avenue's finer establishments.
The Long Beach business model sounds great when you hear about it from enthusiasts like Gigliotti and LeMons -- a win-win-win situation. Yet it's a long way from being a slam dunk.
The whole premise is that the service will attract city visitors, especially visitors attending business conferences at the nearby convention center. It may do that, but will they stop to look at the information on Long Beach at the portal site -- or will they rush on to check their e-mail or surf the Web to download MP3s?
If it turns out that users are only grabbing free Internet access, organizers could change network settings, forcing users to keep the portal site open in a browser window, Gigliotti says. That would still be no guarantee they'd look at it, he admits. They could simply open a second browser window and surf away.
Organizers are convinced visitors will be interested in the local content, but they will likely have to prove it before merchants agree to invest in advertising at the portal site. Before they can prove it, they will have to attract a whole lot more users.
The city has hung banners along Pine Avenue announcing availability of the service, and it's about to launch "a major ad campaign," to further raise awareness, Gigliotti says.
What if it can't attract users who will actually stop and look at the local content? Well, for one thing, the city would likely lose interest pretty quickly, since the economic development benefit would be nil and merchant-advertisers would stay away in droves. Goodbye hotzone.
The business model could be slightly flawed, but we'd love to be proven wrong.