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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Free wi-fi idea is falling apart already

The City of Chicago has blown up its plans to install free wi-fi service around the Windy City. It seems that the private providers of such municipal systems have wised up, and realized that they're not viable unless the city promises to front a bunch of dough up front. Cities aren't willing to do that, and so the whole concept appears doomed.

Portland, of course, got in on the action before this realization occurred. The problem for us -- besides the fact that the technology we picked doesn't work for most people -- is that the company providing our service, MetroFi, is playing out an untenable business plan. Today's Willy Week reveals that troubles have arisen between MetroFi and the city, over MetroFi's demand for discounted electrical power.

Look for those weird wireless nodes on top of Portland's traffic signals to be turned into fuchsia planters real soon.

Comments (22)

There's even a plug for you in that Willy Week story:

"the politicians know jack."

More than a year into Portland’s experiment with free wireless Internet, the digital divide holds firm. Northeast Portlanders remain underserved by free pornography, email scams and the Obama Girl’s uplifting message of…hope.

Northeast? I'm in close-in Southeast, and I can't get it either. I could hit one of those nodules with a rock from my front porch, yet when I step inside it doesn't show up on my laptop when I check local networks.

If MetroFi fails, Finn says, Portland will turn elsewhere—perhaps to nonprofit groups like Personal Telco or Free Geek—to bring high-speed Internet to people who can’t afford to buy it.

Which is... pretty much what everyone was recommending right from the start. Brilliant.

Meanwhile, the city's wi-fi flack is telling the rest of the world that MetroFi's dandy:

Logan Kleier, project manager for the City of Portland, said MetroFi's network "is living up to its billing."

"It's not to say the network is perfect," Kleier said, "I think it is important to say it is reliable, and where there are issues, they work hard to resolve them."

What a load.

I know Brendan Finn, he's a good guy.

i might be wrong, but i imagine he knew of these alternatives from the start but wasn't making the overall decision. he seems to be trying to make lemonade out of lemons, though.

oh, and this?

The company relies on ad revenue and optional monthly subscriptions.

Business Week reported earlier this month that MetroFi was pushing Portland to subscribe to its network. Kleier says that about six months ago, the company asked him to buy more network subscriptions than the city “could possibly afford.”

now *there's* a business model to have confidence in.

Another well thought out idea by Eazy-E Sten.

Still think they should have just let someone bid for rights like Cable TV and then install something they can charge for that gives good coverage. Giving stuff away free really doesn't help quality of service too much.

Here's an indy group of concerned citizens who have put together an independent test of the MetroFi network:


To be fair, this network is not intended to be for indoor use, you can buy a $80-100 repeater for indoor coverage. That said, I've only been able to connect once out of 5-6 attempts with my MacBook and the connection was so slow as to be unusable.

Hopefully when/if MetroFi craters they can at least utilize the infrastructure for an improved network.

Also, this is a private venture unfunded by taxpayers, yes? So at least they are wasting their own money, not ours. Unlike the Portland Business Alliance.

I believe Mr. Kleier is a full-time city employee and that most of his time (if not all of it) is spent on the "free" wi-fi project.

To be fair, this network is not intended to be for indoor use

To be fair, none of that was revealed to the public until after the service began, by which time it was way too late to rethink the contractor selection or the whole dumb idea.

I had to use MetroFi for a while when I was waiting for Speakeasy to set up service. When it worked, it worked surprisingly well - that being said, I had to be near a window and it occasionally dropped me. Definitely not a fun experience. I have a friend who bought one of their repeaters and has had great success.. but that kind of eliminates the 'free' aspect of it.

Protip: If you use Firefox, you can install an extension called AdBlock, and then just block the little script that loads MetroFi's ads.

Also: Personal Telco would definitely be the best way to go, always was. Those guys rock.

The use of public right-of-way shouldn't be free either. Other utilities or users of public r.o.w. have to pay, why not MetroFi? Well, there is an exception-the OHSU's SamTram- they didn't pay for the use of the public r.o.w. and the air rights like anyone else would have to. Even all the required permits were made free. Sam even leaves out many of the different public employee wages used to build the tram in his "the tram only cost $57M" statements.

To be fair, this network is not intended to be for indoor use, you can buy a $80-100 repeater for indoor coverage.

Right...Sten was selling this as "free internet for the poor". Where were they supposed to use it? I dont think the poor are a big part of the laptop-owner demographic.

And the repeater? Thats only if they have a laptop with wireless already. Most people have a desktop computer. They would also have to spend $50-$70 on a wireless adapter before they found out they needed to spend another $100 on a repeater.

Outdoors only?
Seems strange. Perhaps someone thought there was a market for a service limited to outdoor cafes on sunny days. I just don't see how even the private sector could have got things so wrong.
Technology changes, but even when was planned this sounds illogical.

"He’s getting around 1,100 unique hits a day, and the number steadily climbs."

That was 2005.

How many hits are you getting per day now?

WaPo: Japan's Warp-Speed Ride to Internet Future

Anti-competitive favoritism is inefficient, no matter what label one puts on the economic theory.

If I had a spare 17 bucks I might try to find some useful reasoning from "The Role of the Courts in Public Utility Regulation as Exemplified in Oregon" by Ralph C. Hoeber. I ran across it after reading Hillsboro v. Public Service Commission, 97 Or 320 (1920), where the city tried to demand free fire hydrants but faced an argument that it constituted rate regulation. (The rationales/arguments would apply to a demand for "discounted electrical power" for the city itself, or even to a party with whom they contracted to provide a "public benefit.")

What might Ralph have said about Sten's reasoning skills? Or perhaps a modern court's incapacity to mount a reasoned rebuttal to an unlawful gift of an exclusive private franchise to get ad revenue as with MetroFI. How about a break on electricity bills, paid as a subsidy by the city to the electric company, to anyone that hosts an open WiFi spot, with or without adds or consent to comply with the snoopy-MSN terms of services?

To those of you that snidely rebut the "no indoor coverage", you simply don't know anything about 802.11 standards. It's not MetroFi's fault if the city expected a 2.4ghz signal to penetrate steel and brick from a couple blocks away. What were they supposed to do? Hold a seminar on the basics of radio communications to make sure everyone was on the same page? It's like you're blaming the plumber because he didn't disclose that you couldn't take a crap from your couch.

I'm not a MetroFi supporter, to the contrary. I would rather the city had sponsored a pilot project with PersonalTelco to cover a small area of town, then proceed from there. However this would require (gasp!) taxpayer money.

They just can't win, can they? Go with a private venture and they are doomed to face the nay-sayers that expect the laws of physics to be altered to provide broadband in a direct fire bunker from 1/2 mile away. Go with a public funded venture and face the howls of bojack and his ilk that we are wasting our citizen's hard earned money.


The laws of monopoly and favoritism apply and are more impenetrable than radio waves.

I bought a new linksys router after seeing that there was some neat little firmware upgrade for it. Then, I learned that the latest and greatest v6 of it was dumbed down in memory and processing power just enough to make the firmware upgrade useless. One feature was a software based tweak to boost wattage and coverage where one might then only have to worry instead about the feds attitude about making waves that are too big.

What might the attitude of KXL be to Micropower Radio or Pirate Radio?

If WiFi (given the right equipment, and absent restraint by The Man) can carry broadcast quality video then one would suppose that the market would only work itself into a frenzy filling the airwaves until The Man insisted on order rather than chaos. The primary subsidy of concern, of greatest concern, is that of prohibitions so as to exempt one or another clown from the rigors of that blasted evil thing called competition -- to the net harm of the community.

How about we have a Raffle every Monday Wednesday and Saturday where the entry is 20 bucks and the maximum number of Rafflers is 100. For the 2,000 bucks the winner gets a FreePC-type box to run a Linux-server-firewall-DHCP etc. and a quality little hub with an extension on their roof and DSL service for a year.

The corporate purpose of the Raffle sponsor can be as broadly defined as that of Greenlight Greater Portland (I just got a copy of the incorporation crap about them), everything under the sun as allowed (by reference to statutes) but where the entity shall indemnify members for anything and everything for any conduct (again by reference to statutes) not allowed, which presumably could include anything not allowed for a 501(c)(6) entity. Think of it as like a Proactive Politician Defense Fund sort of thing. The Portland-WiFI-Rafflers could require membership dues that are designed to cover the legal defense-offense bills to fight corporate opponents, be they private or municipal, so as not to incur any "personal" liability.

So . . . there is a middle road . . . where Sten is considered not only irrelevant but the key problem (a public-private corporate version of a Yellow Dog contract to any organization of non-governmental laborers, but here against any PRIVATE AND UNCITYAFFILIATED entrepreneurship or non-profit activity).

(Extra credit: Try buying a Cisco/LinkSys based VOIP solution that is not tied to an overpriced monthly service.)

To those of you that snidely rebut the "no indoor coverage", you simply don't know anything about 802.11 standards. It's not MetroFi's fault if the city expected a 2.4ghz signal to penetrate steel and brick from a couple blocks away.

i think both the city and citizens were correct in the assumption. know why? look at this diagram:


notice that citizens (and Police!) are enjoying wireless service from their homes, cars and phones, via access points located on light poles. no additional hardware--home users just use their existing router.

notice that MetroFi states "MetroFi builds mixed-used wireless broadband networks that deliver fast, reliable and secure services to residents, businesses, and city workers",

not "MetroFi builds most of a broadband network which you can access if you buy expensive wireless hardware in addition to the wi-fi hardware you already have."

The Portland Wi-Fi network is still under construction -- only 25% complete. As soon as we were able (in mid-April, after receiving the Certificate of Acceptance on the downtown pilot), we began an extensive expansion, and are doing our best to reach as many people as possible.

Despite being in the early stages of this network deployment, we have seen continuous utilization growth for eight months straight. There are now over 16,000 users a month, spending over 210,000 hours online in more than 133,000 sessions. If you are not yet one of these users and would like to be, please select "MetroFi-Free" from your wireless network connection options (or join our avail list on MetroFi.com if you aren't yet in the coverage area). If you are someone who has experienced issues connecting, please contact us to resolve: supportfree@metrofi.com.

Regarding the need (in some locations) for a Wi-Fi modem or signal booster... this equipment improves indoor reception and the user's ability to 'talk back' to the outdoor access point. An analogy: in some homes, it is necessary for the resident to purchase/install an antenna to successfully access free FM radio and/or free television programming. The same is true for muni Wi-Fi, and you should know that while we do partner with companies that sell the signal boosting devices, MetroFi does not profit from those sales.

Please also note: the claim that "troubles have arisen between MetroFi and the city, over MetroFi's demand for discounted electrical power," is false.


Perhaps you could help point me to the relevant PUC action on the electricity rate reduction matter? I can't seem to find it on the web site, or it is drafted sufficiently cryptically that even I would not recognize it when staring straight at it.

Regarding the need (in some locations)

Such as... anywhere indoors.

Please also note: the claim that "troubles have arisen between MetroFi and the city, over MetroFi's demand for discounted electrical power," is false.

Really? Do you people ever do anything but lie to the public? If you don't cut a deal with Pacific Power pretty soon, the City Council is going to force one down your throat. In my book, that's trouble.

You're essentially out of business.

I'll say it again. With so many high-quality free nodes all over town, I never, ever, ever bother with MetroFi. Outdoors.

And, I don't mind putting few bucks in the pocket of a local business for a cup of coffee or whatever, if I need a really strong signal for some reason.

This service is redundant and unnecessary. But, hey, I have a Multnomah County business permit. Nothing surprises me anymore, regarding the obscene level of wasteful government spending in this town. You can tell the place used to be really cool, though, and, in some ways, it still is, enough to keep me here, for now, anyway.

With so many high-quality free nodes all over town, I never, ever, ever bother with MetroFi.

*exactly*. for example, one of a handful of "customer stories" on MetroFi's site goes like this:

Downtown for a training class at a hotel without wireless: “I headed for Pioneer Courthouse Square, quickly connected to MetroFi, and was able to get a burrito for lunch, people watch and send in my status report all at the same time.”
-Richard M., a Portland professional who had a weekly status report due while away from his usual Internet access

setting aside how fake and advertise-y the stories sound, there's been a Personal Telco wi-fi node there for a loong time, free, without any need to sign up or view ads.

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