Santa Clara is first to offer free Wi-Fi via smart utility meters

Not everyone is excited about getting a smart meter to monitor their electricity and water use, but Silicon Valley Power has found a way to sweeten the deal by offering free Wi-Fi as part of its smart meter rollout in Santa Clara, Calif.

The not-for-profit electric municipal utility has deployed 600 meters so far as part of its SVP MeterConnect program. The network has been up less than a week and is already attracting 3,000 users a day, Larry Owens, a manager with Silicon Valley Power, told the Associated Press.

"This is just one of the major benefits our community will enjoy as a result of our advanced metering technology," said John Roukema, director of Silicon Valley Power.

The new network is riding on the remains of MetroFi, the bankrupt Wi-Fi system that was initially installed in Santa Clara during 2004. The city bought MetroFi's transmitters and toyed around with the idea of using it for meter reading, ultimately opting to add public Wi-Fi to the mix as well.

Silicon Valley Power built the wireless network using equipment and software from Tropos Networks, which was subsequently acquired by ABB. LinkPath Communications directed the design and installation of the wireless system and is responsible for customer service and maintenance of Santa Clara Free Wi-Fi.

According to the Santa Clara Free Wi-Fi's support website, the public Wi-Fi network provides at best 1 Mbps connections. "This is comparable to 3G cellular data network connections. However, like most wireless networks, too many users at once can slow the system down," said the site. The site also recommends users seeking high-bandwidth services such as streaming audio and video and interactive gaming use their home or business DSL or cable Internet for those types of activities.

The network is not designed to support indoor use, though some customers have been able to use commercial Wi-Fi repeaters to extend the range of the Wi-Fi signal into their home or business.

According to ABB, Silicon Valley Power intends to eventually use the Tropos wireless network to support additional smart grid applications, including distribution automation and mobile workers. The city also expects to use the same network to provide mobile access for municipal field workers.

The free Wi-Fi aspect of Santa Clara's smart meter rollout may help quiet some critics of the new meters, which have been greeted in various communities by concerns regarding potential health effects, privacy and cost. Sascha Meinrath, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Open Technology Institute, told the Associated Press that using meters as Internet channels is a ''a real Faustian bargain,'' a smart use of technology that will require ''privacy protections that are second to none.''

Santa Clara's public Wi-Fi network stands apart from other municipal Wi-Fi networks in that it is associated with a smart meter project. Other networks are generally erected as standalone Wi-Fi networks to serve a specific locale, such as a downtown area.

For example, San Jose, Calif., this month unveiled its "Wickedly Fast Wi-Fi" outdoor network, which is accessible throughout the downtown core. Selina Lo, president and CEO of Ruckus Wireless, which supplied equipment for the San Jose deployment, has claimed smartphone users can experience speeds of 2-3 Mbps on the 802.11n network.

For more:
- see this Silicon Valley Power release
- see this ABB release
- see this Contra Costa Times article
- see this Associated Press article
- see Santa Clara Free Wi-Fi website
- see this Ruckus video

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