Portland could take WiFi to the masses

As the rain clouds gather over Portland this winter they may not be alone.

The City of Portland, Portland Public Schools and Tri-Met have joined forces to bring a citywide, wireless network to Portland.


The group, Unwire Portland, is currently accepting proposals from private firms to establish a “WiFi cloud,” initially over the downtown and central Eastside areas and later to blanket the entire city. The successful bidder will also operate and own the network when completed.


Broadband internet access will be offered on this network to Portland residents, businesses and schools, among others.


Unlike the current powerhouse in the Portland wireless community, Personal Telco Project (PTP), the service will not be free.


“We’re hoping to make something happen that the market hasn’t been able to do yet,” said Matt Lampe, chief technology officer for the City of Portland, at a recent PTP meeting at which he was a guest speaker.


If the plan is implemented, Portland would be one of the first larger cities in the nation to establish a wireless network. Other cities include Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Sacramento and Tempe, Ariz., but none of these have a network as large as Unwire Portland desires.

“The reality is nobody has ever built anything on that scale yet,” Lampe said.


According to Don Park, president of PTP and a computer science graduate student at Portland State, charging for use of wireless internet would compromise something built in the “spirit of the gift economy.”


“It’s a basic service that arguably everybody needs,” he said, acknowledging the idea that the network should be a customer-owned utility. Under Unwire Portland’s plan the system would “provide alternative means of accessing the internet for low-income and disadvantaged citizens.”


On the group’s Request for Proposals a set of minimum mandatory requirements are listed, including affordability, security and quality, but the specifics will be left to the successful bidder to decide. “We hope and expect those minimums will be exceeded,” said Rashid Ahmed, Unwire Portland’s senior project coordinator. Ahmed is also confident that the competitive bidding will drive the prices down.


Ahmed stated that Unwire Portland’s relationship to PTP is one of “synergy” and that they were very supportive of the efforts of PTP.


Unwire Portland grew out of ideas expressed in focus groups funded by the Portland Development Commission. These groups, composed of representatives from local businesses, saw a need for wireless broadband Internet in Portland. The city agreed, as did Tri-Met and Portland Public Schools. Each has specific needs provided by the network.


The City of Portland will use the network for multiple reasons, including connecting its parking meters for real-time credit card authorization, something it does not do now. It will also facilitate emergency response.


Portland Public Schools will utilize the network’s internet capabilities for students and teachers.


Tri-Met will employ the network mainly for communication among its fleet of buses,  its light rail system and its transit centers.


The proposal includes a special relationship between these three groups and whoever is chosen to build the network. In return for heavily using the system and for allowing the company to use their facilities to install system equipment they will purportedly get reduced rates for the services.


Potential bidders include Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Earthlink and many others. The cost of installing the network is expected between $15 and $20 million.


Thomas Fitzgerald, a member of PTP who helps install and maintain their network, doesn’t see the benefits of Unwire Portland’s cloud.


“How much cheaper can you get than free?” he asked, stating that internet use could cost upwards of $40 a month on the system, though no such number was given by Unwire Portland.


Fitzgerald said that when the large network enters the WiFi spectrum, all other smaller networks will be silenced. Accomplishing the goals of Unwire Portland, he said, would simply install more internet providers who charge while getting rid of the only free one.

When asked what the goals of PTP are, Fitzgerald responded, “Giving what the haves have to the have-nots.”