WiFi Urban Renewal: It Can Happen In Your City

David Strom, Editor-in-Chief, Tom’s Guides publishing
Since I moved here, I have found that there are two things that get Californians excited: free parking and free WiFi. Even better, how about places that offer free parking within a few feet of having free wireless access. The only thing better would be laptops with built-in cup holders for your lattes. Wait a minute, isn’t that what the CD drive is for?
Two years ago the City of Long Beach was one of the first to jump on this trend, and enabled free WiFi in a four-block area along Pine Street, one of the more pedestrian-friendly and restaurant-laden spots in the area. Then they turned on free WiFi at their airport, which has become a busy cross-country hub since Jet Blue
started flying there and American had to match its service levels.
I spoke to Terry Evans, a long-time friend and longer-time IT manager at the City of Long Beach. He mentioned how “WiFi has now become a basic municipal service like street lights and garbage collection.” What he’s found is a pretty consistent usage pattern through his downtown network of about 200 users per week.
Since then many other locations around the world have followed their lead. The latest in the Los Angeles area to go wireless is the city of Fullerton, which began in
February offering free access in their 24 block “downtown” area. Now all it needs is some pedestrian traffic to make it a real downtown.
And that is the point of this trend. Cities need to attract people walking around and WiFi has become yet another tool in the urban renewal arsenal. Whether these pedestrians are shopping, break dancing, eating, or wirelessly Internetting, the excitement is in having bunches of them out of their cars and on their feet. It is a real paradox here in the endless suburbs of Los Angeles, where there are more palm trees than buildings taller than 30 feet high, and where people think nothing of driving 30 miles to get to dinner, but walking 30 feet from their car is too much to ask. Evans tells me his wireless network has definitely changed the perception of Long Beach as more techno-friendly, although I don’t think your average Angelino will be packing up the car for a drive downtown with their laptops just to surf the Web for free. Still, it is a nice amenity and a good calling card for the local businesses to pull in traffic, whether it be via the Web or in person – the businesses have ads on the Long Beach portal page that you first see when you connect.
All this free wireless is happening as a result of several powerful trends working together. First is that the gear is getting pretty cheap, and that more businesses are online with broadband connections. This makes it easier to extend their wired networks to wireless users. It also makes it easier for municipal governments to pay for the ongoing costs to run free wireless networks. (In Long Beach’s case, this amounts to less than $5000 per year.) Second, volunteers are getting organized and community-level projects are bringing techno-geeks together to build their own hot spots. The best example of this is Austin Wireless City Project in Texas. They have even produced a training manual to show how they have built out their network
Third, the traditional government funding mechanisms of redevelopment grants and new public safety initiatives have poured tons of money into these areas, and even some business consortiums are getting involved. Some communities have gotten new networks for their police and fire departments, and as a side benefit the public gets better Internet access. Some of these new networks come at the expense of older and more expensive technologies that municipal agencies have used. As an example, Evans mentioned his existing building inspectors who carry laptops with cell phone modems. This service is expensive, averaging over $70 a month. “That adds up fast and can pay
for a lot of WiFi access around the city.”
And finally, hotels and hospitality services are getting into the act, opening up their own properties with free wireless throughout. Many are finally realizing that business travelers, such as me, are actually searching for free wireless when we book rooms on our trips.
It is a great idea. Now if we can just keep the local Bells and cable companies from killing it. Needless to say, they are concerned that all this free wireless is cutting into their profitable monopolies. In the meantime, if you need to find free wireless connections, the best site that I know of is JiWire’s hotspot finder

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Ramon Ray, Editor & Technology Evangelist, Smallbiztechnology.com . Editor and Founder, Smart Hustle Magazine Full bio at http://www.ramonray.com . Check him out on Google Plus, Twitter or Facebook