Wednesday, June 27, 2007

WiFi may fly through the air downtown

City postpones decision on one-year pilot project

Express Staff Writer

Erik Bohn of Boise stays connected at Tully?s coffeehouse. He likes the idea of WiFi downtown. Photo by Willy Cook

How WiFi works

WiFi is a term is a term that flies around as readily as the wireless signals from where it takes it name.

WiFi is short for "wireless fidelity." Wireless networks are very similar to how two-way radio communication works using radio frequency waves like radios, TVs and cell phones do.

Heidi Dohse, who has volunteered her technology skills to the city for the project, explained how it works "The Internet cloud," that worldwide system of devices that brings the Worldwide Web into our valley, is brought in on various lines that allow data to flow at various speeds.

High-speed is needed to transmit large amounts of computer info quickly. This would be the "plumbing." Those types of lines, provided variously by Cox Communications and Qwest, include data lines, phone lines (the slowest), cable lines, T1 and fiber optics (the fastest).

Those lines would bring the Worldwide Web info to a base station in Ketchum where an antenna would beam the signal to radio transmitters installed on utility poles in the downtown core area.

Anyone with a WiFi equipped device (laptop, BlackBerry, cell phone) can then receive that signal anywhere downtown and conduct their Internet business or leisure activities indoors or out.

Hey all you bloggers—grab your laptops, strap your decks and sliders on your Volvos and Beamers and come on down. The city of Ketchum wants cyber savvy snow sliding folks. So that blogging skiers, snowboarders and other visitors who must stay connected might also stay here longer and drop more cash, the city is looking to a install a WiFi network downtown. WiFi experts say that system could also be a boost to local businesses and eventually help local government.

The City Council was expected to consider approving resolutions at Tuesday afternoon's special meeting for two contracts not to exceed $80,000 to install and maintain a WiFi system. But Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall said those items would be pulled off the agenda because he did not wish to compromise the budget on the city's Fourth Street Heritage Corridor.

He said he would like to get the WiFi project into next year's budget and have hearings on it in July. "It's such a great project, it really deserves unanimous support," he said.

Hall had read about active cyber travelers who go places to ski and board yet want to "still stay connected to their work," said Eric DaVersa, vice-president of business development for NetLogix. They are the San Diego-based company the city would pay to install and maintain the system

"The Ketchum reason is economic development more than anything," DaVersa said, in a telephone interview.

In addition to visitors taking their computers/work on vacation with them, the network could also benefit local businesses and government, he said. "When you have street fairs you will be able to run credit card transactions from the street."

Heidi Dohse is valley technology expert who has volunteered her services to the city since December when Mayor Hall asked her to help. During busy times an estimated 20,000 visitors to Ketchum/Sun Valley could use the service in the one-square mile downtown core, she said. Currently WiFi is available in whatever coffee shops or lodgers who provide it.

"It's already a must have in a lot of cities ... and if you don't have it you're doing a disservice to your communities," Dohse said.

Erik Bohn of Boise, who was recently working on his laptop from Tully's in Ketchum, said he would use the WiFi network. "I travel—I always need a wireless system."

Craig Settles, who writes and lectures extensively about WiFi agrees with Dohse. He wrote "Fighting the Good Fight," about helping cities deploy wireless broad band networks.

The Oakland-based Settles believes there are several good reasons for Ketchum to go WiFi. Smaller towns can have problems with Internet services because of their remoteness or because their small size can discourage phone companies from providing universal high-speed access, he said.

There's needs to be redundancy in high-speed coverage because not all companies serve all areas, Dohse said.

High-speed (the ability to transmit large amounts of computer information) is important part of business and government, Settles said. Everything is global now and to expand commerce using the Internet high speed is a necessity, he said.

A high-speed system must be able to transmit a megabyte per second of information. A megabyte equals one million bytes—each byte consisting of eight bits, the smallest unit of information. On the Worldwide Web you can sell anything in the world but you can't do that without high speed, Settles said. "From the business side it's the ability to be able to draw in more customers and bring in more regular customers for its products."

DaVersa and Settles said Philadelphia is working on installing a WiFi system and Scottsburg, Ind. (pop. 6,040) has a version of a WiFi system.

Eventually a WiFi network could be used to transmit information from parking meters as well as be installed in police and other emergency vehicles, Dohse said.

The proposal is to fund the system for one year and then look at ways to make it self-sustaining, such as selling passes for visitor use, leases to entrepreneurs and perhaps cutting down on city library Internet costs, Dohse said.

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