Public Wi-Fi finds a home in Virginia city

The addition of public wireless access points in Staunton's busy Gypsy Hill Park during a network upgrade was a way to give something back to the people, says the city's CTO.

A public Wi-Fi service launched in a busy Staunton, Va., park last summer got off to a rocky start.

“We put a press release out June 29, and four hours later we had a storm blow through,” said Staunton chief technology officer Kurt Plowman.

The strong derecho storm that began near Chicago and tore cross-country to the Chesapeake Bay not only eclipsed the news of the free Wi-Fi service but also did serious damage to Gypsy Hill Park, where trees were knocked down and buildings were damaged. Fortunately, “the system stayed up,” Plowman said. When thousands gathered in the park five days later for a July 4th celebration, the public Wi-Fi got a lot of use.

In fact, Wi-Fi use in the park had begun well before the formal launch. Almost as soon as installation of the access points began in May, park workers noticed people congregating with their laptops in areas near the points, Plowman said, demonstrating the demand for Wi-Fi access.

Public Wi-Fi has become a popular feature at the park. “People are finding creative uses for it,” Plowman said, such as the woman who used a laptop Web camera to send a ball game in the park to a player’s grandmother.

The service was included almost as an afterthought as part of an upgrade of the city’s network, adding wireless edge solution components to the existing OneFabric architecture from Enterasys Networks that the city already was using for its wired network.

“I’m almost embarrassed to say how easy it was,” Plowman said of the wireless segment. “It was an opportunity to give something back to the public.”

In some ways, Staunton was bucking a trend in municipal Wi-Fi service, which began to lose its luster about five years ago when cities discovered that creating free community wireless hotspots was not necessarily as easy or productive as first thought.

“There was a merging of issues, and it just stalled,” Mike Leibovitz, wireless product manager for Enterasys, said of municipal efforts. The emergence of competing technologies such as WiMAX and 4G Long Term Evolution for cellular service slowed down Wi-Fi deployment, and there was an effort to match new capabilities with needs. There also were concerns about the propriety of cities competing with commercial carriers by providing free Internet services.

Staunton, a town of 24,000 covering about 20 square miles in the picturesque Shenandoah Valley, began dabbling in public WiFi about 10 years ago when it became one of the first cities to offer it in libraries. The city manager was excited about the possibility of extending it to the rest of the city, but “I didn’t feel comfortable doing that,” Plowman said.

He didn’t feel the technology was mature enough or that there would be enough bandwidth to make it feasible, and there were the questions of unfair competition with commercial carriers.

Municipal Wi-Fi is not dead, however. Many cities still offer the service and some are considering creating new wireless networks. Chicago recently issued a Request for Information  for a citywide expansion of its broadband infrastructure that would include free or subsidized high-speed wired and wireless service in underserved and disadvantaged areas, as well as free wireless access in parks and other public spaces.

There is an expanding demand for the service today, Leibovitz said. “The driver today is BYOD,” he said. The explosive growth in the number of devices has created an expectation of wireless connectivity anywhere.

For Staunton, the driver for public Wi-Fi was the creation of a 30-mile fiber optic city backbone about two years ago to replace the city’s leased lines. Thirteen years ago, telecos had leased the city’s dark fiber, but over the years they had become more interested in selling services than capacity, and the city decided to build out its own infrastructure in cooperation with a local carrier.

“Cost was a driving factor, along with bandwidth,” Plowman said. “We built a better network as a public-private partnership and saved a lot of money in the long run.”

The fiber links about 30 government locations, including Gypsy Hill Park, which has heavy use all summer. The park’s bandstand offers entertainment four or five times a week throughout the summer and there are frequent festivals and other activities. Officials decided that, “for what we’re spending putting fiber in, let’s put something in to give the public something for the expense,” Plowman said.

Staunton has an IT staff of just five, but the task was simplified because mobile wireless access has been embedded in the Enterasys architecture that the city had been using for years. That allows an integrated end-to-end wired-and-wireless architecture that is centrally managed through the OneFabric control center.

Having a central point of management with a controller-based solution is a major enabler for the public wireless access, Plowman said. He doesn’t have to manage multiple access points manually but can build policy centrally and push it out. Adjustments can be made on the fly without having to touch individual access points, and a central point of visibility makes filtering and bandwidth management simple.

In addition to the control center, the network uses Enterasys N-Series modular switches and G-Series edge switches, as well as Enterasys’s IdentiFi access points and controllers.

Traffic from the public Wi-Fi access points is segregated from the city network on private segments, with city resources behind firewalls to prevent unauthorized access.

“We do very little filtering on it,” Plowman said of the public segment. “We do some bandwidth throttling,” to discourage use of bandwidth hogs such as peer-to-peer file sharing applications on the free service. “We don’t prevent it. We just make it painfully slow.”

To address the issue of unfair competition, the city does its best not to compete with commercial DSL and cable services by grooming the access point signals to keep them within the park, Plowman said. “I made it a point to ensure that we were not providing free pipes to people living in the nearby neighborhoods.”

Carriers have not complained, and in return the service has been a benefit for park users, including tourists who are important to the city’s economy.

“It’s been a small investment, but we’ve gotten a good return on it,” Plowman said.

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