June 20, 2008

Portland’s Wi-Fi Network Making an Exit

By Mike Rogoway, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

Jun. 20--Bye-bye to free Wi-Fi.

MetroFi Inc. has confirmed to Portland officials that it plans to turn off the city's Wi-Fi network at the end of the month, putting an end to the troubled, city-backed experiment in providing universal Internet access.

The news is no surprise: The project has been plagued by technical problems since its launch in December 2006. Contractor MetroFi stopped construction last fall, with the network less than a third complete, when the California startup ran into financial trouble.

In May, MetroFi warned that it would turn off the network by the end of June unless a buyer emerged to bail out the project. None did.

"We're disappointed that their business plan didn't work out," said Brendan Finn, chief of staff to Portland Commissioner Dan Saltzman, whose office shepherded the project.

"We're glad that there was no financial risk to city of Portland taxpayers," Finn said.

MetroFi stopped returning calls from The Oregonian last week and didn't respond to new inquiries Thursday.

Portland hired the company to build an advertising-supported network with a goal of providing free, wireless Web access to "95 percent" of the city by this summer. The city spent more than $250,000 studying the project and overseeing its launch, but MetroFi and its investors paid the $2 million cost of building the partially completed network themselves.

Low-powered Wi-Fi antennas are relatively inexpensive to operate, but Wi-Fi lacks the signal strength to provide truly comprehensive coverage. Many would-be users found themselves unable to connect, and few users could access the signal indoors without a $100 signal booster.

MetroFi put about 600 cylindrical Wi-Fi antennas on streetlights and utility poles around Portland, concentrating coverage in downtown, inner Southeast and St. Johns. The company told city officials this week that it plans to start taking down those antennas July 1 and complete the work by July 30.

Though the network's unreliable performance earned scorn from Portland techies and the ire of frustrated users who couldn't connect, MetroFi claimed 15,000 people a month signed on to use its service.

In some locations close to Wi-Fi antennas, or in homes where residents used a signal booster, Web surfers reported good results. The city has fielded about two dozen e-mails from dedicated MetroFi customers who don't want to lose their service.

"I'll probably have to go back to dial-up," lamented Southeast Portland resident John Whitehead, 59.

Phone and cable companies charge upward of $30 a month for fast Web access. Whitehead, a retired Oregon Department of Transportation technician, said earlier this month that he won't pay those rates.

Portland declined MetroFi's offer to buy the network for about $900,000. The city sent MetroFi a sternly worded letter last winter accusing the company of being in breach of contract for not finishing its network, but Portland officials said Thursday they plan no legal action against the financially strapped company.

Portland was among the first of several cities across the nation that sought to bring cheap, wireless service to residents. Nearly all those projects met the same fate as Portland's, some before turning on, but there are signs of a second act in citywide Wi-Fi.

Private investors rescued a Philadelphia project this week, acquiring it from EarthLink Inc.

And in San Francisco, a startup called Meraki Inc. is spending millions to give free Internet connections to anyone who will rebroadcast that connection using a device the company makes. Meraki hopes to demonstrate that grass-roots Wi-Fi networks, with users rebroadcasting their connections, can succeed where top-down projects such as Portland's have failed.

In Portland, the volunteer group Personal Telco Project has been talking with the city about a possible expansion of the 130 Wi-Fi hot spots the group has set up in bars, cafes and other public venues. With MetroFi's network coming down, Personal Telco volunteers have begun soliciting Portlanders to open up their own Internet connections to the public.

Bay Area technology consultant Craig Settles, an early critic of Portland's wireless project, said that despite Wi-Fi's setbacks it's still possible for cities to help create broader Internet access.

The key, he said, is to design a network that serves a demonstrated city need -- connecting city offices, for example -- and then adding public access to the network as an auxiliary function.

It won't work everywhere, because not every city needs a wireless network. But Settles said it's better than cities promising free Wi-Fi they can't deliver.

"That's a dead model," Settles said. "Let it rest in peace. You've got to come at it with a new model."


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