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San Jose, Calif., Launches Fast Public Wi-Fi

In the city's second attempt at municipal Wi-Fi, officials applied lessons learned from past projects to create a faster, more reliable network.

One of the nation’s fastest free public Wi-Fi networks was unveiled in downtown San Jose, Calif., on March 14. Partnering with hardware provider Ruckus Wireless and an engineering team at SmartWAVE Technologies, the city upgraded both its infrastructure and its equipment to revitalize its existing Wi-Fi network and create new opportunities for the city and its residents.

The new network, which cost the city about $94,000 up front, and $22,000 annually, will complement a changing atmosphere in downtown San Jose, CIO Vijay Sammeta said. The City Council recently approved curbside dining, an activity that will be greatly enhanced by the public’s ability to access high-speed Internet.

San Jose, dubbed the Capital of Silicon Valley, also is using the new network to provide Internet access to city facilities, such as parking meters that handle time-sensitive transactions. City services using the new downtown Wi-Fi network will help offset some of its costs by using the public network instead of buying Internet service independently. The new network uses the wireless-N standard and can provide download speeds of 3 to 4 Mbps on a mobile device, according to Ruckus Wireless.

Over the past 10 years, city officials have made promises about the great things municipal Wi-Fi would do, but projects often fell short of expectations, with low speeds and not enough capacity for a large population. But advances in Wi-Fi technology, coupled with some important management lessons the city learned from its last public Wi-Fi network have Sammeta optimistic that this network will effectively serve San Jose's needs.

“I wanted to make sure the city was in the driver's seat on this one,” he explained. “When we outsource the entire business model, what we end up with is somebody who’s trying to make a profit on the margins. We’ve all seen that boom and bust of municipal Wi-Fi and the business models were all wrong.” By tying the network into other city services, the city has greater control over the network and its own technological future, he said.

So far, feedback on the network has been extremely positive, Sammeta said. The network’s initial build-out is almost completely finished and the city will continue looking for ways to use the network as a platform for growth and new ideas, he said. The network may eventually be expanded to some indoor locations as well, such as the city’s theaters or performing arts centers.

Other ideas, according to Sammeta, include connecting video cameras to the network. “We’ve become a very video-centric society,” said Sammeta. “We have some dynamic art downtown that would be great to stream to the people to give them an idea of San Jose before ever visiting,” he said, adding that San Jose's lively music and art festival scene represent additional opportunities to leverage and expand the new network.

While declaring the project a success, Sammeta said the city plans to keep looking forward. “It’s one thing to climb to the top of the hill; it’s another thing to stay there,” he said. “And I think you’re going to see more and more usages in very nontraditional ways of the wireless network.”

Creating a successful project means working together and understanding the needs of your partners, said David Callisch, vice president of marketing for Ruckus Wireless. Ruckus beat out Cisco on the short list of contractors to provide equipment for the city’s network. San Jose's main concerns, he said, were reliability, performance and coverage -- three areas where the city’s old B/G Wi-Fi network fell short. “That was before the iPhone came and when the iPhone came, their network kind of came to a running halt,” Callisch said. “They couldn’t really support high capacity.”

The same thing happened in a lot of cities, including large ones, Callisch said. “The environment within Wi-Fi, because the Wi-Fi band is unlicensed and its free, anybody and their mother can get on that frequency and do anything they want and you can’t do anything about it,” he said. “Most access points in the market today just weren’t built to adapt to the increased noise that you get in these city environments.” But the hardware his company provided circumvents much of the interference problem found in municipal Wi-Fi installations, he said.

Eventually the city will probably need to upgrade its equipment again, but in Callisch's view, they did things right this time. “We’re ready for that and it will be a very simple upgrade because now they’ve got it all set up,” he said. “They have fiber to most of the poles, you’ve got an architecture that meshes properly, so now replacing the equipment with upgraded gear is fairly straightforward.”

Previously, San Jose’s Wi-Fi network had just two fiber connections, but now the network has a ratio of one fiber connection to every two mesh points. A map of the downtown San Jose public Wi-Fi coverage area is available here.

San Jose, Calif., City Hall. Photo by happyfunpaul/Flickr CC.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.