Santa Clara Free WiFi Builds on City Investment in Communications Infrastructure

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Carolyn Schuk
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Santa Clara Free WiFi Builds on City Investment in Communications Infrastructure

The success of Santa Clara's new municipal WiFi system builds on the city's telecommunications infrastructure, making the new home of the San Francisco 49ers a stand-out for customer service and connectivity. 

Over the last decade, a number of cities attempted to roll out municipal wireless Internet access, but ended up rolling them back up in the face of mounting cost, logistical problems, or pressure from for-profit telecomm providers. 

"What makes Santa Clara unique is that we've provided a public WiFi network for the whole city for free," explains Larry Owens, Manager of Customer Services for Santa Clara's municipal electric utility, Silicon Valley Power. "We're the only one that has provided coverage over the entire city for free."

Santa Clara's infrastructure puts the city ahead of the municipal network challenge. Santa Clara is likely the most connected city in Silicon Valley, and its infrastructure is one of the reasons that it's one of the number one locations for data centers.

Santa Clara jump-started its municipal network by buying the assets of WiFi provider MetroFi when the company went out of business in 2009. At that time SVP was planning for a next generation network to provide the communications for the smart meter system and mobile city services. By choosing a WiFi infrastructure, the Santa Clara got public Internet access as a happy byproduct.

But when it was made several years ago, the WiFi choice wasn't the no-brainer it seems now. At the time, Owens says, ZigBee and WiMax were also in the running. However, the opportunity to acquire MetroFi's assets at pennies on the dollar was the deciding factor. 

"We were able to maintain the system for the residents and test it for utility use," says Owens. "There wasn't a lot of extra effort needed to provide the data channel for public Internet access. We took a serious utility infrastructure approach. Our model wasn't to sell advertising. It was to provide good service to residents."

Even before buying the WiFi assets, SVP had built-in advantages -- not least because the municipal utility has a century-long history of investment that includes owning a significant percentage of its own electric generation. As a city-owned utility, access to utility poles for network equipment isn't a problem. SVP also has access to the city's radio towers. And the city-owned dark fiber network – SVP Fiber Enterprise, the only service of its kind in Silicon Valley – handles the backhaul, significantly increasing the efficiency and reducing network bottlenecks. 

The effort just completed replaced and upgraded the original MetroFi equipment, expanding coverage, speed and reliability. It cost about $1 million for the $300 million utility to upgrade the network for its primary use to support the smart-meter program, and costs less than one-tenth of one percent of the utility's revenue to support the public Internet access. "It's very small additional cost for a very high value community service," says Owens. 

Santa Clara is already seeing direct benefits from the investment. Mobile city workers are using the system to connect to information and applications – for example, maps and drawings to fulfill field service orders.

Owens sees the network's ubiquitous coverage paying back its cost many times over in the future for the city. One way is smart equipment and monitoring systems. Another benefit is that mobile devices in the city will have an alternative, and cheaper, route to the Internet than 3G cellular networks. "There are ten of thousands of types devices that will be able to connect," he says.

Public safety, too, will benefit. "We designed in a battery backup so the system could be used to divert cellular traffic in the case of a power outage or natural disaster," Owens explains.

The network can also help bridge the "digital divide," Owens says, noting that in 2011 almost 20 percent of households in Santa Clara County are below the poverty line. "It allows those who cannot afford an Internet connection in their home to be able to connect to the Internet throughout Santa Clara."

The city will continue to increase network use, Owens reports, for its mobile workforce and to consolidate communications that are being handled by other telecom providers to the WiFi system -- such as a solar energy monitoring system currently used by the City.

But for residents, free public Internet will probably be the most visible benefit. Adds Owens, "As a community service, this one's a gem."

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