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Why Palo Alto needs a citywide WiFi network

Original post made on May 15, 2009

Operating efficiency and success in today's society requires being connected to a data network.

Read the guest opinion here Web Link posted Friday, May 15, 2009, 12:00 AM

Comments (18)

Posted by Bob Harrington
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 15, 2009 at 10:32 am

Free citywide WiFi is a good idea, if planned and executed intelligently.

Citywide WiFi, turning the entire city into a free hotspot, is the right thing for our City to do for all members of our community. While limited in bandwidth, WiFi is still a considerably faster Internet connection than any of the cellular networks serving us today.

It would prove to be a valuable community resource for those with mobile devices and those with limited financial resources (just about everybody). It would be a reasonable investment for our fiber optic utility, the city utility that owns the 41-mile dark fiber ring. The fiber optic utility investment over a decade ago has been so successfully it now has additional funds to invest.

Citywide WiFi would nicely complement citywide Fiber to the Premise (FTTP) which could become a reality for Palo Alto soon thereafter.

Posted by An Engineer
a resident of Downtown North
on May 15, 2009 at 12:56 pm

If this is such a good idea, why aren't the comms companies battling to be the first to implement it? I suspect they've done market analyses which show that the few who would use the service could not generate enough revenue to pay the bills.

Posted by George
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 15, 2009 at 1:57 pm

It would be a great service but it's unlikely to be much of a moneymaker for the city either directly through usage fees or indirectly through more business and tax revenues for merchants. It hasn't worked as a business in any city, unless the city themselves commits to be the anchor tenant/user. Consumers will take Wifi when it's free and they'll put up with Edge/3G if they've already paid for it. It doesn't really increase the number of people wanting to shop and eat in the city, but its a nice service for constituents.

The downtown merchants association could ask the city start with a small trial on bounded by Middlefield and Alma to the east and west, and Lytton and Hamilton to the North and South. The rest of the city has no shot of delivering much revenue or usage.

Posted by Sarah
a resident of Midtown
on May 15, 2009 at 4:35 pm

I don't understand this story. How can this system be "free" and also cost $1 million? Is the $1 million coming out of tax dollars? Or is this author (a Google employee) proposing that Google pay for it? How about the cost of running the network?

Also, how secure will this network be? With all the bank fraud and credit card fraud and identity theft going on these days, do you really want to trust a public WiFi network for internet banking or shopping?

Posted by Jeff Hoel
a resident of Midtown
on May 16, 2009 at 2:10 pm

Google implemented free citywide WiFi in Mountain View as a learning experience; that doesn't demonstrate that cities like Palo Alto should implement free citywide WiFi.

I have long advocated that Palo Alto should implement a citywide fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) network first, after which it will be in a much better position to consider implementing citwide WiFi "for dessert." WiFi before FTTP is only a distraction.

The FTTP network services should not be free. Rather the network should be paid for over time by the people who use it. This is how Palo Alto's electric, gas, and water utilities work. If the city implemented citywide WiFi, it too should be paid for by the people who use it. (If a retail service provider wanted use the city's FTTP and WiFi networks to bundle a "free" WiFi service with a non-free wired Internet service -- and pay the city for both wholesale services -- that would be OK.)

Recall that Joint Venture Silicon Valley Network tried to implement a Wireless Silicon Valley network, but so far implementation has been limited to a test network in San Carlos.
Web Link

I suspect that if Mountain View had a citywide FTTP network with reasonably priced Internet services, Google's WiFi network in Mountain View would be used less heavily than it currently is. I suspect that if users had to pay for the WiFi network over time, it would be used less heavily than it currently is.

If 16,000 users use Google's WiFi network in Mountain at the rate of 500 gigabytes per day, that works out to an average of about 3 kilobits per second per user. Palo Alto's latest FTTP plan called for connections to homes and businesses of either 100 Mb/s symmetric or 1 Gb/s symmetric.

Palo Alto City Council has made it clear that they think that WiFi is not a substitute for FTTP.

Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on May 17, 2009 at 8:55 pm

“The FTTP network services should not be free. Rather the network should be paid for over time by the people who use it. This is how Palo Alto's electric, gas, and water utilities work.”

And would the FTTP funds also be transferred into the general fund – like our gas and electric payments?

Where is the business plan for FTTP?

Posted by Chris
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 18, 2009 at 8:48 am

"Where is the business plan for FTTP?"

Anyone who has been following this knows that there have been no shortage of "business plans" for FTTP over the years. The problem is that NONE of these plans makes any business sense without large subsidies from the city to prospective private operators of a FTTP system. And public operation of a system would only internalize these subsidies.

Jeff Hoel is nothing if not persistent, but unfortunately he's been flogging a dead horse for some time now. If FTTP were a money-making proposition, we'd have had legitimate providers competing to set up a system here (rather than the fly-by-night players who drop out when they find out they can't con the Council into giving them money for subsidy.)

There's no money in the City till for quixotic FTTP proposals. End of Story. Let's get to work on the real problems this city has.

Posted by Karl
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 18, 2009 at 10:11 am

Thanks for all the comments.

I guess I wasn't clear enough in the article -- I am advocating that the city spend money to put up a WiFi network that would be free to all who could "hear" and "respond" to the RF signal. This is not a money making proposition, rather it is a service to the community -- since basic Internet connectivity is so vital in today's society and it potentially can provide a platform for the next wave of technological advance: mobile computing.

The initial cost would be about $1 million and the ongoing annual maintenance would be roughly $150K.

With the proper encryption protocol which this network will have, the security of your data is better than your cable connection -- where the data is not encrypted.

And finally, it is important to note that a WiFi network is not meant as a substitute for any wired network. It solves a different problem and provides a different resource for our residents and visitors.

Posted by Chris
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 18, 2009 at 11:32 am

I think Karl was pretty clear. He wants the city to pay for something he thinks is neat and fun and that he really wants.

There was one poster whose comments were (mistakenly I think) removed who provided the apt reply to Karl saying mockingly, "I want a pony."

"I want a pony" is what one expects from children too immature to realize that every such "I want" comes with an associated cost that must be paid by someone. In the case of the pony, as in the case of Karl's WiFi, there is substantial upfront costs along with ongoing maintenance costs that never end.

That one's parents (in the case of the pony) has competing uses for the pony money - or even that there is no pony money - never enters into a child's consciousness, so narcissistically focused is he on how much he wants a pony.

Anyone reading these threads knows that the city is in a big budget hole from which there is no clear means of escape.

And yet all some can think about is how much they want a pony.

Posted by Craig
a resident of another community
on May 18, 2009 at 2:10 pm

An interesting revival of a good idea (both WiFi and FTTP), and certainly entertaining reminders, some truth and some distraction, in the collected comments. Until there is a compelling reason to go forward, however, we're still just talking among a few interested parties (not hardly 50,000 prospective but disconnected citizens).

Over the years YES truthfully there have been viable business plans offered here in Palo Alto to install, demo at low cost & risk, and expand if warrented both ubiquitous WiFi and FTTP. Yet local pride, collective or specific gaps of reason, misdirection, intentional FUD, un-informed consumers (ie un-formed demand), bigger agenda, or just bad timing have at one time or another defeated expanding even an offer of a self-funded demonstration of what we could have had.

If ubiquitous high speed (Internet based) SERVICES were already working, in hand and demo'd in 2000, why doesnt Palo Alto have them running now? Who's interests were served in deferring, distracting and preventing that progress? What's any different today?

Yes, of course nothing is actually free, but if self-interests and user beneficiaries are collected and fairly charged as a price on their own rewards for being served --- what's more fair than that? Here I'm specifically addressing easily recognized "service providers" who certainly gain by you and I being connected and using their services. (One insider estimated that Comcast earned $750 per connected household from commercial sales and yet they still charge monthly consumer fees from their residential customers.) If Google's WiFi is such a great idea in Mtn View, why hasnt it already doubled (3X? 10X?) in size and depth of usage and content/application? Why hasnt Google (or somebody else seeing the financial benefit) duplicated it another dozen locations? Why doesnt every college campus, military base, and shopping mall have full WiFi?

Maybe the premise is wrong. Its not about "if we build it they will come" (another freeway overpass in the cornfields). Maybe its about "if we have a reason to use it, we will find a way".

OK, lets look back into those still-viable business plans to see that its the CONTENT (services, connected groups, ubiquity of access anytime/any place) that defines user satisfaction, not the speed of connectivity (alas, the telco's really are just service providers after all). This used to be summed up as C3F = convenience, comfort, control and flexibility, as determined by user's perception rather than supplier's permission.

If even a portion of our 50,000 citizens individually can see personal benefit, and see reasons to cooperate collectively especially as small groups of users (clubs, teams, employees, customers, neighbors, friends, families --- you get the picture) then Palo Alto, and Mtn View too, will itself automatically define what is sufficient demand to deploy existing technical capabilities (good news to equipment and connectivity providers) and attract more than sufficient funding to expand (good news to investors as well as consumers). Otherwise its still a "push" from service providers rather than a genuine "pull" from the rest of us.

Now I think that's the kind of business plan that attracts non-subsidy financial interest, and self-propagating demand.

Posted by Hank
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 19, 2009 at 12:26 am

Again, may I state:

"I want a pony"

Posted by eric
a resident of Mountain View
on May 19, 2009 at 1:17 pm

A few comments on Google's free wi-fi in Mtn View--

Google provides Mtn View with ostensibly free (use of the service requires logging in to Google and you will be directed to their home page to start-- so, they do gain modest benefit at a very low cost to those of us that use it) wi fi service. It may eventually roll into an ad-supported model after the initial contract with the city sunsets. All good.

The published speeds are largely fantasy. I think by the very nature of a widely deployed network with much of the hardware plopped on phone poles, it is inevitable that mileage will vary widely. The service is good not great at my house, usually solid downtown, and non-existant once you get near the MV/PA border (these are the places that I use--or attempt to use-- the service and the extent of my experience).

I believe that a lot of users consider google wi-fi as a back-up or mobile alternative to their home dsl, either due to reliability issues or security concerns.

The reason I'm outlining this is twofold-- first, if you have reasonable expectations from a broad wi-fi network, it is a benefit. It is not, in my opinion, a game-changer. Second, comparing an fttp-type network with free or low-cost wi-fi is very much an apples/oranges discussion.

Posted by George
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 19, 2009 at 3:55 pm

It's a nice Pony, and a pretty pony perhaps.

That said, there isn't a city out there that's been able to charge for it. People are willing to put up with AT&T's spotty network using iPhones or 3G data cards and if there is free WiFi at a restaurant they use that for FREE. It's hard to argue that the citizens of Palo Alto should be paying for the free riding users of this service when the increase tax revenues would be minimal. Spending $1 mm up front and $150K a year for something that's of questionable value isn't going to fly in this budgetary environment.

Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on May 20, 2009 at 2:53 pm

Thank you, Chris. Well said!

Everyone in Palo Alto wants a free pony of one kind or another. The irony is that Palo Alto is a city in which most residents could afford to buy their own pony without expecting the government, aka taxpayers, to pay for the pony and it’s upkeep.

Posted by bruce
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 25, 2009 at 3:49 am

It makes a lot of sense for the city to offer internet service. If someone wants internet service they have to get a phone or cable at a cost of several hundred dollars per year.

Assuming the city can do this competently, why not charge a fee on the utility bill to cover the cost? It's called win-win.

This is not like saying "I want a pony" or whatever the current right-wing nasty line is of the day.

Posted by Greg
a resident of Downtown North
on May 25, 2009 at 8:54 am

The problems with having the city build it then billing the citizens are:
1. only a minority of people will use it, so charging everyone is not fair
2. if you charge just the people that use it (via some sort of login system), then it probably won't be any cheaper than what the phone or cable company charge

The best way to get this to work is with corporate sponsors and advertising. This is probably what Google is experimenting with in Mountain View. Maybe someone can convince Facebook or HP to try something similar in Palo Alto.

Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on May 25, 2009 at 9:25 am

Google CEO Eric Schmidt told graduates at Penn and Carnegie Mellon this week that they should turn off computers,
turn off their cellphones and look at the people around who are near and dear to you.
Now, he also told them that nothing beats holding the hand of your grandchild as he takes his first step, which is hard to do if you're 22 years old.
But, be that as it may, his point about cellphones and PCs, I think, was well taken.
The Web has been wonderful in many ways, but I think we have to think a little bit about what it's been doing to us.
And if even the CEO of Google says it's turning us into zombies, we ought to think about that.

Posted by Dubious
a resident of another community
on Oct 10, 2009 at 8:30 pm

Am I missing something here? Is Mr. Garcia representing himself or Google or both? Who would manage this network ... Mr. Garcia or some entity in which he is a principal? Who is going to provide the Internet backbone for this operation ... is he commiting Google to that as it does in Mountainview? Perhaps we ought to give him the benefit of the doubt and ask him to tell all of us with a post to this string?

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