Pilot program offering free wireless Internet

Rick Wagner • Mar 22, 2008 at 12:00 AM

KINGSPORT — Increasing broadband Internet access may boost the economy, but the main backer of Kingsport’s free public wi-fi or wireless fidelity system has a broader motivation.

“We’re trying to do this for the public good,” said Olan Jones, chief executive officer of Eastman Credit Union, a tax-exempt, not-for-profit entity that has pumped $160,000 into the three-year pilot project.

ECU’s investment in the pilot program represents about 95 percent of the cost of the project.

Jones said the idea is that students, especially low-income ones, could access the Internet from home to do homework and school projects, while low-income people with computers but no Internet access could use it.

Another target group is start-up small businesses that could avoid the expense of a hard-wired Internet connection, and visiting tourists or business people could check their e-mail and surf the Web while in town.

ECU announced in May it was the primary financial supporter of a three-year wi-fi project in several areas of Kingsport: downtown, part of Borden Mill, the Riverview area and the MeadowView area.

That was an expansion of earlier pilot programs that served mostly downtown.

In 2005, the Kingsport Housing and Redevelopment Authority, city of Kingsport, Kingsport Office of Small Business Development and Entrepreneurship and the Kingsport Economic Development Board launched a pilot project to offer wi-fi access downtown.

Jones said the service, which began in July, is also under study for use by the Kingsport Police Department for wireless surveillance.

Bill Moore, senior technician with Tele-Optics Communications Inc. that operates the system, said the police are looking at placing surveillance cameras in selected areas that would be viewed by police.

The cameras would be in selected areas next to access points that provide a signal.

The overall hope, Jones said, is that the program will grow into sustainable city-wide free public wi-fi accessibility for Kingsport’s 45,000 residents. Right now, the system covers an area with an estimated population of 15,000.

“We would cover the city limits of Kingsport. That’s what we’d like to do,” Jones said.

In the long range, however, Jones said he’d like to look north to Southwest Virginia as well as to other parts of the Tri-Cities.

“Imagine the effectiveness of covering an area like that (Southwest Virginia) with wireless at approximately a 10 percent factor of government-laid cable,” Jones said.

Although the region’s topography makes wi-fi a challenge in places, he said buildings, hills and mountains are not the main obstacles.

“This is not the kind of thing you flip a switch on and boom, it happens,” Jones said.

“The technology is not the challenge. The challenge is finding partners to work with.”

Kingsport’s pilot project

Jones and Moore said the technology part of the Kingsport pilot project has been working well.

“Demand kind of roams around,” Moore said. “This given day, it might be at the library. This given day it might be at the access point that is on the roof of the Dent K. Burke building.”

In general, however, Moore said the downtown area is consistently the busiest and peaks from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“The downtown area is by far the busiest,” Moore said.

Anyone with a compliant wireless device, including a laptop computer, PDA (personal digital assistant) and some cell phones, can access the system. First-time users must sign off on the users agreement.

The system, which Tele-Optics operates on behest of ECU, tracks computers by a MAC address, a unique address that identifies every computer or other such device in the world.

Moore said a recent software upgrade allows Tele-Optics to track the traffic and get more data from the system, which operates with 15 strategically placed access points.

Jones said the system averages 650 to 800 unique users per day, based on tracking identifiers unique to each wireless device. He said sign-on times average slightly less than one hour.

“We have anywhere from 10 to 30 people connected at any one time,” Moore said. He said that while that might not sound like much, in the beginning the wi-fi had from 3 to 15 people connected, numbers that picked up about three months ago.

“At three o’clock in the morning, you might be one of three people connected.”

The pilot wi-fi system is offered by ECU and the Greater Kingsport Alliance for Development, an arm of the Kingsport Housing and Redevelopment Authority. Embarq provides the broadband access and American Electric Power has provided utility pole space for access points.

It covers three basic areas:

• Downtown, along Broad Street from Main Street near the train station to Church Circle at Sullivan Street. The service area is basically a rectangle that also encompasses Clinchfield to Cumberland streets along Center Street.

• The MeadowView Conference, Resort & Convention Center area, including all the rooms, some other inside areas and the pool area outside. In addition, the ECU building near MeadowView has an access point.

• The Riverview area, including the ECU building on Wilcox Street, the East Sullivan Court area of Borden Mill and the East Sullivan and Lamont streets and Peach Street areas. However, he said the Riverview access point has been moved back to the Weed and Seed building until the Hope VI project is completed there.

Target users of system

Moore said the system is mostly meant for incidental users, travelers at MeadowView, other visitors or area residents who want to check e-mail on their laptops, desk tops, personal digital assistants and some cellular phones.

That’s why it has a two-hour limit, enforced by a feature that automatically signs off a device after two hours since just being signed on takes up some bandwidth. However, users can sign back on immediately.

“We’re not trying to replace the wired high-speed Internet service,” Jones said.

Likewise, Jones said the service is not meant to compete with or replace hard-wired cable or DSL (digital subscriber line) service. He pointed out that Embarq, which sells DSL service, is providing broadband access to the project at cost.

The system uses a 5 megabyte Internet connection. Although the system slows down in proportion to the higher number of devices that are signed on it, Moore said that in most cases it is equivalent to a mid-range home DSL or cable modem.

However, the system is not guaranteed to be available at any given time or to work with any computer or device.

For one thing, Moore said the system by being wireless is subject to radio frequency interference.

In particular, he said that microwave transmissions can interfere with wi-fi. In addition, buildings, trees and topography can interfere with the wi-fi signal.

Some would-be users on the fringes of the wi-fi system attempt to sign into the system. However, the laptop or other device does not have enough signal strength to reach back to the access point. That results in a signal error and the connection is disconnected, Moore explained.

A remedy for that is a two-way amplifier connected to an antenna, which picks up the signal, amplifies it and then sends it wirelessly inside a building. The return signal goes back through the amplifier and then is sent back to the access point.

Such systems provide service inside the library and MeadowView. He said such systems would be possible for businesses or even home use, although he said he wasn’t aware of any in town other than the library and MeadowView.

Jones said that inside usage of the system will be promoted in the future by plaques inside downtown businesses promoting the free wi-fi.

Although in some situations terrain and buildings block signals in some areas, in other areas signals reflect off buildings to service areas that otherwise wouldn’t be served.

Spreading the wi-fi word

Jones said the pilot wi-fi program has received attention nationwide through the Internet, as well as locally and regionally through the media.

Smith has spoken about the pilot project at conferences, including a recent one in Washington, D.C., and one in Charlotte last year. At the one in Washington, Jones said he spoke to a group that tried to start free wi-fi programs in Washington and London — plans that collapsed when they couldn’t get enough sponsors.

Jones said the three-year pilot project already has attracted interest from other potential financial supporters in Kingsport as well as elsewhere in the region.

“If that doesn’t work out, it was just a bold experiment,” Jones said.

The home page for the wi-fi system, including the agreement for all first-time users, is at www.kingsportwireless.org. For a coverage map, go to www.gkad.org.

Recommended for You

    Kingsport Times News Videos