Another try at WiFi for Portland? Don’t bet on it

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Friday, August 01, 2008

PORTLAND In early July, Portland’s year-and-a-half-long experiment to create a citywide wireless Internet network came to an end. Its demise was, for many, unsurprising.

The system, which was expected to cover 90% of the city, covered perhaps as little as 12%, and even then access was spotty or required special equipment to connect. As of July, there were no other companies that had expressed interest in building a similar network, says Logan Kleier, the Portland city staffer who oversaw the project. But should another company try again, they may have an equally difficult time.

The project was unsuccessful for a simple reason, says Kleier: MetroFi — the Mountain View, Calif.-based company that contracted with Portland to build the network — failed to generate sufficient money through either of its revenue models: free, ad-supported access to the network, or ad-free subscription access. MetroFi did not respond to interview requests for this story.

There were other conditions that made it difficult for MetroFi to achieve the kind of coverage it needed to become viable, says Russell Senior with Personal Telco, a local project dedicated to expanding wireless networks in Portland. Last year Senior and other members of Personal Telco analyzed the signal of each of MetroFi’s 641 nodes (the utility-pole-mounted hardware that formed the backbone of the network).

Their analysis showed that only 12% of the city was covered — as opposed to MetroFi’s claim of 30%. They found that nodes were strong enough to broadcast a signal to people’s homes, but weren’t strong enough to “hear” a signal from individual computers. The nodes were so low that buildings and Portland’s many trees stymied their communication. The resulting lack of access meant the company couldn’t generate the advertising or subscription dollars needed.

As for future wireless projects, Senior’s group is developing a network built on small, individually operated wireless hotspots. Portland-based Stephouse Networks is providing limited free and subscription-based WiFi in downtown and north Portland. Kleier says that the city has no plans, nor the ability to implement something of its own.            

ABRAHAM HYATT


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