With his inbox overflowing with 50 e-mails a day, his professors posting vital readings online and a small private business to manage on the side, Clark Gillam, a freshman at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, said he definitely takes advantage of Philadelphia’s burgeoning wireless Internet services.
“The ability to have instant access to information and to be able to communicate anywhere, anytime has increased my school and business productivity,” Gillam said. “My workspace is no longer restricted to the library or my dorm room.”
New Haven, like Philadelphia, is in the process of providing high-speed Internet access to all residents and businesses. But while Philadelphia may have citywide wireless access by next year, New Haven is still in the early stages of development. Ira Spaner at the Office of Information Technology for the City of New Haven said officials are conducting a study to determine New Haven’s needs and the technology needed to address them.
“From a technology standpoint, what New Haven is doing is very straightforward,” Spaner said.
He explained that the key to New Haven’s wireless endeavor consists of creating a mesh network, or an interconnected grid of routers and access points which relay the wireless signal throughout the city selecting the optimal route to deliver traffic.
The technologies usually employed in municipal systems, such as those in the works in Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., are called Wi-Fi and Wi-MAX. These two systems operate by allowing users within range of a hotspot, or access point, to send and receive information from the Internet using low-frequency radio waves. Lisa Phifer, vice president of Core Competence Inc., a network consulting firm in Chester Springs, Penn., said the two systems are attractive as signals are broadcast over already-existing radio bandwidths. This means that cities do not have to purchase airspace. Wi-Fi hotspots are also extremely cost-efficient, Phifer said.
In addition to benefiting the city’s checkbook, Spaner said the use of Wi-Fi wireless technology would be relatively cheap for New Havenites as well.
“For the user, most new computers come with Wi-Fi capable machines and the technology is user friendly enough to be accessible,” Spaner said.
Yet implementing Wi-Fi technology throughout crowded cities provides some unique challenges.
Rashid Ahmed of the Portland Development Commission said that while Philadelphia commissioned its own report on the feasibility of wireless Internet in the city, Portland is letting private companies bid for the job and letting them assess technical hurdles that may accompany it.
“Portland has a lot of trees that are going to present considerable challenges,” Ahmed said. “Frankly, this technology has not been tested in an environment as dense as Portland.”
Portland’s problems do not bode well for the Elm City. The range of wireless signals is reduced drastically with the signal-stopping presence of foliage, buildings, walls and furniture. Microwaves and cordless phones that operate on the same bandwidth can also interfere with the signal. Conglomerations of these impediments can slow transmission rates considerably.
Steven Le ’08, a Yale computing assistant, said he does not think a citywide wireless network would interfere with the University’s network, unless they were operating at the same frequency.
In spite of the challenges, citywide wireless access will be beneficial not only for busy college students but for city-dwellers of all walks of life, Phifer said.
“Cities like Philadelphia embark on municipal wireless initiatives to close the digital divide, bringing high-speed Internet access to those who cannot afford residential broadband connections of their own,” Phifer said. She said such systems have the added benefit of attracting business investment by making the Internet more affordable to small businesses and the city a more hospitable environment in general.
“Studies have shown a positive correlation between municipal Wi-Fi networks and the economic development of cities involved,” Spaner said.
Moreover, the systems could be employed by police, firefighters, emergency responders and public transportation to improve their services, Phifer said.
So while the sight through coffee shop windows of privileged college students typing furiously while sipping lattes has become ubiquitous, this stereotype may soon become outdated as wireless Internet spreads throughout the city.
“When it comes to bridging the digital divide and providing access to underserved populations, it is impractical to rely on coffee shops to fulfill this need on a scale large enough to serve residents located throughout the city,” Spaner said. “The ripple effect from introducing this technology into the city will affect everything from education to entertainment, and computer literacy and accessibility for our citizens.”