September 27, 2008

Pleasant Hill’s Free Wi-Fi Network Up and Running

By Lisa P White

PLEASANT HILL -- Online junkies longing to be untethered from cords and coffee shops can head to Pleasant Hill and check their Facebook accounts in the great outdoors on the city's free wireless network.

"It works great. Even with the free network, it's fast," said James Ziegelman, chief technology officer for Pleasant Hill. Ziegelman said the network has been up and running for about three months.

The city signed a 15-year contract with Pleasant Hill-based airCloud Communications last year to run the wireless network free of cost to users and the city. The network currently covers about 70 percent of the city, and should blanket the rest within the next month, according to Dan Wilson, chief executive of the six-year-old company.

Residents who prefer to surf the Web without seeing the banner ads across the top of the browser window can opt for a paid service. AirCloud will pay Pleasant Hill 5 percent of the revenues from paid subscription services, helping the city recoup its investment in the equipment that formed the backbone of the wireless network.

Pleasant Hill spent about $200,000 to install a limited wireless network in 2005 to give police officers instant access to mug shots and rap sheets in their patrol cars. When the police department moved to using wireless-enabled cell phones with the laptops, the city dropped a plan to spend almost $400,000 more to expand its Wi- Fi network.

But residents clamored for free wireless, so the city sought bids from private companies, Ziegelman said.

Numerous attempts by other cities to provide free Wi-Fi have failed -- San Francisco scrapped a high-profile partnership with Earthlink and Concord, and Foster City and San Jose were blindsided when wireless Internet provider MetroFi folded this summer.

Experts say enthusiasm for municipal Wi-Fi networks seems to be tapering off, due both to a shaky business model and the development of WiMAX technology, which delivers broadband speed over a much wider area and more reliably than Wi-Fi.

"(Wi-Fi) does not seem to be a growing trend. We're kind of at the cusp of seeing what comes about with WiMAX networks as opposed to Wi-Fi," said Charles White, an executive with New York market research firm TNS. "I don't think Wi-Fi networks will just switch to (WiMAX) but it's probably more of the long-term technology for a wide area."

Wilson believes airCloud will succeed because the company is able to spread the costs of providing the municipal wireless network over its existing business.

"For airCloud it is almost more of a public service than it is a revenue or profit center, and certainly if we are able to sustain growth and provide services that the residents of Pleasant Hill are using on a regular basis it will be a success to us," Wilson said.

Derek Kerton, who owns a wireless consulting agency in Pleasanton, said citywide Wi-Fi can be spotty because it takes a large number of access points to cover an entire town. The technology works best in a downtown core such as University Avenue in Palo Alto, which has a Wi-Fi network, he added.

"If they're trying to do something that is very much capped in terms of its (geographic) scope, then I would say they have a good chance of succeeding," Kerton said.

When the Times did a test drive of the airCloud network Friday afternoon it found a strong signal in the Commons shopping area downtown and a fast connection. But the connection died when the laptop was taken inside a store.

For more information about the airCloud Communications wireless network visit

Originally published by Lisa P. White, Contra Costa Times.

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