Esme Vos, Muniwireless founder: Chaska's wireless efforts have been a success.
Nestled in the bucolic Minnesota River valley, Chaska, Minn. is ground zero for a great Internet experiment. And Ben Palmby is a prime test subject. Palmby signed up for his hometown's high-speed wireless Web service when it was launched two years ago. It was cheap: less than half the cost of high-speed Internet through cable TV or a phone line. But then, the quality of Chaska's service sometimes seemed only half as good. "For the price, you get your money's worth," said Palmby.
Chaska is one of the first U.S. cities to offer almost all of its residents Wi-Fi. Users plug a city-supplied Wi-Fi receiver into their computers, allowing them to receive Web service through radio signals, thus untethering their machines from telephone cables and making them theoretically mobile.
Wi-Fi systems have been rolled out in close to 60 U.S. cities and counties, according to muniwireless.com, and are being planned in over 120 more.
Many of those cities are going Wi-Fi for the same reason as Chaska, and they can all learn some lessons from this town of 17,449 at the 2000 census.
Chaska, just like big-city brethren Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco, pitched Wi-Fi as a way to bring high-speed wireless to citizens who otherwise might not be able to afford it -- or might not want to afford it at around $40 per month.
Chaska's wireless effort has been a success, said Esme Vos, who runs muniwireless.com, a Web site that tracks municipal Wi-Fi. "It's considered a very good network."
But Chaska's network has had its share of woes -- slow speeds, dead connections -- sparking customer angst along the way.
"It took about a year and a half before we felt we really had a good handle on the network," said Bradley Mayer, Chaska's former tech manager whose success there helped land him a job at EarthLink, an Atlanta-based firm that builds municipal Wi-Fi networks.
There's an art to setting up a wireless system, ensuring that radio signals do what they're supposed to do and provide quality Web service.
In Chaska, "There was a lot of pre-conceived notions that you could just blast (Wi-Fi signals) through walls and trees and everything," Mayer said.
Instead, Mayer made some unpleasant discoveries. Like the fact that wet, leafy trees absorb radio signals, hampering Wi-Fi coverage. And this one: Wi-Fi signals don't pass through stucco like they did wooden walls, another negative for coverage.
Chaska had to devise ways to remedy problems like that. "You can't change the laws of physics, but you can bend them," Mayer said.
Bigger cities will face even bigger challenges than Chaska, if only because of their size.
"It's an order of magnitude more complex," said Ellen Kirk, marketing vice president at Tropos Networks, a leading Wi-Fi equipment maker. Tropos built Chaska's system.
"It's much easier to implement Wi-Fi technology in a smaller site," said Roberta Wiggins, a wireless analyst at Yankee Group, a tech research firm. "It hasn't yet been proven in a really large area."
Chaska, located 27 miles southwest of Minneapolis, covers about 15 square miles. The city was founded about 150 years ago, and still sports many handsome, old buildings fashioned from the cream-colored brick for which the area is known.
Wealthy suburbs have grown up around Chaska. But Chaska itself has an income profile more in tune with the Twin Cities norm: It's home to both trailer parks and ritzy homes abutting Hazeltine National Golf Course, one of the nation's finer golf links.
The idea for a more affordable broadband alternative -- one priced less than $20 per month -- started with Mayer. He
pitched it to Chaska city manager Dave Pokorney, who liked it and brought it to the city council.
From the outset, Chaska had some advantages to become a Wi-Fi pioneer, including an advanced telecommunications system and a municipal electric utility.
Chaska owns its own light poles, the roosts for radio transceivers in a Wi-Fi system. So, it didn't need to negotiate arrangements to mount the radios.
Wi-Fi systems are made up of a "mesh" of transceivers that bounce signals back and forth from each other. Chaska has 365 of them, covering about 95 percent of the city's households.
Chaska launched the system, dubbed Chaska.net, in June 2004. It offered a four-month free trial to about 1,000 of the city's 8,000 households.
After the trial, the service would cost $16 per month (Currently it is $17, while high-speed Internet through local phone and cable companies is $25 to $45 per month).
The idea was to essentially use the free trial as a test period to see how Chaska.net worked. "In hindsight, that was a mistake," Pokorney said.
That's because 1,000 households made for too big of a test sample, considering the new network still had bugs. A lot of Chaskans peppered the city with complaints. A smaller sample size would have been easier.
"The speed wasn't good, or they couldn't get on (the network)," Pokorney said. "Sometimes customer service was a problem. It was hard for us to staff up to meet peak times."
Indeed, Ben Palmby ended up driving to city hall to get a service problem addressed.
"No one ever answered the phone," said Palmby, who has subscribed to Chaska's Web service since its inception. "Their customer service was horrible."
Palmby, a chemical dependency technician, said that at first, Chaska.net was pretty reliable. There were some problems: A lot of his e-mail ended up being read as spam and deleted before he could read it.
But "it was way better than AOL," he said referring to his old dial-up Internet service.
Then, after about six months, Palmby's Chaska.net service began slowing down -- pages would take 20 minutes to load -- and sometimes didn't work at all. The problem, he discovered, lay in the city's attempts to improve its overall Wi-Fi coverage by moving some radio transceivers.
The quality of Wi-Fi coverage depends on how many radio transceivers a system has, where those radios are placed, and how many of them are hooked directly to the Internet.
For instance, transceivers tied to fiber-optic lines -- gateways to the Internet -- provide stronger coverage, but effectively cost more. Chaska found that it needed to add more gateway receivers to improve coverage, as well as reconfigure some radios.
The improvements cost $300,000 beyond the original $600,000 that Chaska sunk into the system.
This spring, the city shelled out more money for a whole new generation of Tropos-made radios. And it contracted out customer service and network administration to Siemens, a big tech firm.
Network quality and customer satisfaction seems to have improved. Last year, while 1,100 Chaska residents signed onto the service, 800 quit, leaving a net gain of only 300.
This year, "we have seen a significant decrease in the number of people canceling," Pokorney said. The service now has 2,300 subscribers; 300 more than the 2,000 customers it needs to break even.
Palmby said his Wi-Fi service again became reliable -- until he moved a month ago to another part of Chaska. His new home is located in an area where Wi-Fi coverage is weak.
So, for high-speed Internet on his home computer, he switched to Time Warner Cable's service. It costs $45 and is faster than Chaska.net, Palmby said.
But he's kept Chaska.net. He thinks the "connected community"
ideal it represents is a great idea. And he can use it on his laptop throughout much of the town. "It's really convenient," Palmby said.
Despite, the mobility advantages of wireless Web service, Chaska hasn't morphed into some sort of cyber village.
Downtown at the Embers, a family-style restaurant, waitress Amanda Burford said she occasionally sees customers with their laptops flipped open. But they're usually working on spreadsheets or other programs.
"I hardly ever see anyone on the Internet," she said.
Across the street from the Embers, Chaska sports a classic town square park complete with a gazebo. Has Burford ever spotted anyone there with an open laptop on a sunny spring day? Not once.
"People use the system to get inexpensive high-speed Internet into their house," said city manager Pokorney.
That's pretty much the same -- at least now -- in other Wi-Fi cities. But Chaska is increasingly unique in one respect: Owning and operating its own system.
Most cities are treating Wi-Fi more like cable TV, awarding a franchise to companies like EarthLink. In this model, the city offloads financial risk onto a private company.
But all cities will face similar technical issues to those faced by Chaska.
"By and large, you're going to deal with the same issues anywhere," said Mayer, the former Chaska tech manager. "But now, there are a lot of people out there who understand what to expect."
(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via Newscom. Photo by Blake Harris.
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