MetroFi launches Portland Wi-Fi with Microsoft's help

Free Wi-Fi with content by Microsoft

Portland, Ore., became the latest city to launch a municipal wireless network, starting a free, ad-supported service featuring localized content and services from Microsoft Corp.'s MSN.

The network, being built by MetroFi Inc., went live in a few central neighborhoods on Tuesday and is intended eventually to provide Internet access in 95 percent of the city's indoor and outdoor spaces.

Cities and counties around the U.S. want to build wireless networks to promote business and tourism, provide Internet access to residents who can't get or afford wired broadband, or add another choice to the usual options of cable or DSL (Digital Subscriber Line). Municipalities in some other countries, including Taipei, are also part of the trend. Traditional carriers have opposed city-owned networks. But many municipalities, including Portland, are simply contracting with private service providers to build, own and operate their systems.

Portland's is the first service to feature local content from MSN. It will appear on a special MSN home page for Portland that will always appear after users start up the service. When they first try to use the network, users will see a MetroFi page that asks them three anonymous demographic questions, such as whether they are male or female. Then the network will remember the client device's MAC (media access control) address, and the next time the user goes on the network, there won't be any questions, according to MetroFi. There are no plans now for services or ads that use the subscriber's physical location in the city.

MetroFi has built municipal wireless networks in several cities, including Aurora, Ill., and Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, San Jose, Foster City and Concord in the San Francisco Bay area. It uses mesh technology in which a Wi-Fi access point can reach the Internet partly through other access points rather than needing a direct wired connection. The service in Portland will deliver speeds comparable to DSL, according to the company.

To pay for the service, banner ads about 1 inch (2.54 centimeters) deep will appear continuously at the top of the user's screen, Van Haaften said. MetroFi has already secured a handful of local sponsors and plans to add more over time. The City of Portland will act as an anchor tenant, with public-safety and other employees using the network for improved connectivity in the field. MetroFi may offer the city a special grade of service, Van Haaften said.

The service became available Tuesday in Pioneer Courthouse Square and in much of the Buckman, Lloyd and Kerns neighborhoods. The network, using access points mounted on street light poles, is scheduled for completion by mid-2008. To improve reception inside homes, MetroFi recommends indoor modems from Ruckus Wireless Inc. that can amplify the signal from the service.

Microsoft probably sees the project as a testbed for involvement in future municipal networks, said Craig Settles, a municipal network consultant in Oakland, Calif. Building ad-supported municipal networks is an inherently risky business, and having Microsoft involved might raise the profile of MetroFi networks in various cities, he said.

The key to making the current Microsoft portal valuable will be producing content and services that are useful to local residents and business, Settles said. Microsoft could apply those lessons in other cities. But it might also go further and, for example, offer services over the network that are available only on Windows Mobile devices, he said.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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