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Free Community Wi-Fi Coming to an End in Seattle

Online since 2005, the program has served approximately 20,000 users per year.

Seattle is pulling the plug on its free community Wi-Fi program.

The wireless connectivity service has served the city’s University District and Columbia City neighborhoods and four downtown parks since 2005. The system will be shut down on Sunday, April 29.

A public statement on Seattle’s website said the decision to end the free Wi-Fi — which was still classified as a pilot project by the city — was primarily due to the prohibitive costs of replacing outdated equipment and the increased widespread availability of Internet access through smartphones and businesses.

David Keyes, community technology program manager with Seattle’s Department of Information Technology, said use of the free Wi-Fi program stayed fairly consistent over the last few years. He added that the connectivity helped increase the number of customers in the business districts.

Despite the usefulness of free Wi-Fi, Keyes said that feedback received from businesses and residents indicated an understanding on why the city had to shutter the program.

“People have certainly enjoyed having the convenience of the service, but I think most people are pretty realistic about recognizing the challenge the city had had [to maintain it],” Keyes said. “We have had some outages as a result of the equipment getting old.”

Seattle would be open to someone taking over the system, but Keyes felt that anyone coming in to do a fresh deployment of Wi-Fi might install it a little differently in regard to wireless access point placement. The actual equipment would also need to be replaced.

Not everyone in the city was in favor of free municipal Wi-Fi hot spots, however. Bill Schrier, Seattle’s chief technology officer — who will shortly retire from his position to join e.Republic, Government Technology’s parent company — was one of the concept’s early critics.

During the initial study of the Seattle pilot project, it was discovered that Wi-Fi has a hard time going through walls and providing widespread coverage. The system was also used at times for potentially illegal activities.

“The University District has, of course, a large transient population of students coming and going,” Schrier told Government Technology on April 27. “One of the troubles we found in the University District was that students were using the Wi-Fi there for quasi-legal activities — peer-to-peer music and movie downloads.”

Seattle isn’t shutting down all of its Wi-Fi. According to Keyes, hotspots will still be online in some city facilities, including City Hall and the Seattle Center. Libraries will also have wireless service.

One of the project’s major goals was to help business districts with economic development, and Keyes felt that the Seattle Wi-Fi free community wireless service was successful in that regard. He said that the city interviewed most of the businesses in the Columbia City neighborhood and most felt the system was helpful in calling attention to the area.

“About a quarter of the businesses thought the Wi-Fi helped bring in additional business, and over half the users … said having Wi-Fi that day [reduced their driving],” Keyes said. “It was clear they coupled using the Wi-Fi with other uses in the business district.”