Calif. city goes WiFi, waits for wireless project

Foster City, CA, will likely contract Mountain View, CA-based MetroFi, a four-year old start-up, to roll out a metro-wide WiFi network in the city. WiFi transmitters could be installed by October on 100 streetlight poles if the city council approves the contract. MetroWiFi has already installed city-wide WiFi networks in Aurora, IL, and Santa Clara, Cupertino and Sunnyvale, CA. The company has also been selected by Portland, OR, to install muni-WiFi in that city (where it beat EarthLink to the city-wide contract). Foster City will be MetroFi's first customer in San Mateo County.

MetroFi will pay $36 per light pole per year to the city. It also agreed to ensure that around 95 percent of all land parcels in Foster City's 4 sq. mi. will have outdoor access without the need for additional equipment. "Everyone can get a good connection even if you're 1,000 feet away from one of our access points," said Chuck Haas, MetroFi CEO and co-founder. Connections will be stronger for some than others. A laptop generally only receives a strong signal from transmitters no more than 300 feet away. Haas responds by saying that up to half of Foster City's houses will be within 300 feet of one of the 100 APs. For others, an Ethernet or USB high-gain wireless adapter may be needed to enhance reception indoors. In the worst cases, such as a condo blocked by a tall building or a house surrounded by heavy trees, an external antenna might be needed, which MetroFi can install.

MetroFi will make its money on ads which appear in a bar when the service is used for free. If a customer is willing to pay a $19.95 monthly subscription fee, there will be no ads showing. The company also earns money from cities which use the APs to conduct city business in a mobile fashion. MetroFi will provide five evaluation licenses for Foster City to try it out. Foster City's staff in the public works, parks and recreation, and fire departments will, on a trial basis, file reports and complete paperwork from the field using PDAs. The city will evaluate whether this procedure saves time and effort relative to coming back to the office and doing the paperwork there.

Foster City officials say that they do not see the metro WiFi program competing with the Wireless Silicon Valley Project, a high-speed wireless network to connect more than 1.5 million residents over 1,500 sq. mi. in San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Alameda counties. MetroFi has indicated that it would be interested in bidding on the Wireless Silicon Valley Project and that its networks could be integrated into the wireless project as it takes shape.

Other cities within the planned Wireless Silicon Valley Project area have also launched local WiFi networks ahead of the larger project. Pacifica is negotiating a contract with Menlo Park, CA-based WiFi provider Veraloft. That company also owns half of Coastside Net, an all-types Internet provider in Half Moon Bay, and is working with the non-profit project Community Wireless to build a WiFi network for businesses and homes in East Palo Alto, CA. The reason for cities going ahead on their own is simple: The RFPs on the Wireless Silicon Valley Project will not be released until the fall and with 30-some government agencies involved in the approval process, that process is not going to be quick.

For more on Foster City's plans:
- see Rebekah Gordon's Inside Bay Area report
For more on MetroWiFi's Portland plans:
- see Ed Oswald's BetaNews article

PLUS: Not as grand as Google and EarthLink's venture to blanket San Francisco in free WiFi, and not as ambitious as the Wireless Silicon Valley Project, but still: Denver unveiled a free wireless network in its downtown area on Monday. Report

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