A regional Wi-Fi plan — with San Carlos and Palo Alto as pilot sites — that would have connected up to 40 cities with wireless Internet service has all but been abandoned.
San Carlos business owners know there is a Wi-Fi network ready to go in their city, but they are not using it.
The equipment and hardware for a wireless Internet network that would allow business owners to use it for their own transactions and to even sell or offer it to customers was installed roughly three years ago, but a network provider has still not been found.
David Bouchard, executive director of the San Carlos Chamber of Commerce, said he is not aware of businesses using it at all.
The installation was part of a pilot program that would expand wireless Internet throughout the Bay Area, according to San Carlos Assistant City Manager Brian Moura, but it never got off the ground.
Moura said the city is still looking at possible providers to expand the service.
“We have one square mile in downtown San Carlos covered,” he said. “But that’s as far as it went.”
Moura said the closed-loop test network was to verify such a concept could be built.
Wi-Fi is a popular wireless technology that uses radio waves to provide high-speed Internet to computers, game devices and phones. It’s easier and faster to set up and maintain and doesn’t use costly cables and wiring. Businesses including coffee shops and hotels offer the service free to their customers, but it has limited range, and there can be security issues.
Citywide and regional Wi-Fi is seen as a way to get Internet access to everyone, and some U.S. cities already offer it. However, plans in the Bay Area — the heart of the technology universe — haven’t gelled.
Cisco Systems spokesman Neil Becker said the company did its part by providing the necessary equipment to make such a Wi-Fi network in San Carlos possible. He said one day, the company could possibly provide Internet services for cities or networks, but that wasn’t the case in San Carlos.
Representatives from Covad Communications Group, the listed provider for downtown San Carlos’ network according to Moura, did not return requests for interviews.
According to Duffy Jennings, spokesman for the nonprofit Joint Venture Silicon Valley in San Jose, the plan has all but been abandoned.
“We’re not doing anything in that area,” he said. “There was a test site in downtown San Carlos, but we are not currently involved in that project.”
In 2006, the group joined with the San Mateo County Telecommunications Authority and Smart Valley to help expand wireless Internet “to build a high-speed, wireless data network that will cover all 1,500 square miles of the region. The network will be multipurpose, serving local governments, businesses and consumers,” according to the organization’s Web site.
Consumer cost would have ranged from free — for Internet access — up to $100 for signal boosters, according to Joint Venture documents, which list Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit One Economy as helping to subsidize the cost. The help would have been offered to get computers, training, signal boosters and support to low-income communities to allow them “access to the information they need to find work, improve their health and stay in touch with their families.”
Cities await Google’s picks for test network
A handful of Peninsula cities have thrown their hats into the ring to be a test site for Google’s Fiber Communities, saying the opportunity would provide greater Internet access and more opportunity for those working in Silicon Valley.
Burlingame, San Mateo and San Carlos had all shown interest by Google’s March deadline.
Google sought communities that would voluntarily participate in a trial of “ultra-high-speed broadband networks” in February.
Google said it will “deliver Internet speeds more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today” and wants to offer the service to 50,000 people at a competitive price, then potentially up to 500,000 people.
“Our goal is to experiment with new ways to help make Internet access better and faster for everyone,” Google said on its Web site.
Marcus Clarke, economic development specialist with the city of San Mateo, said even if his city is not chosen, it is an opportunity to expand coverage.
“We always want to be cognizant of opportunities to improve service,” he said. “It’s not an official conversation, but Google has heightened the awareness.”
Clarke said San Mateo’s location between Silicon Valley and San Francisco would be an ideal location for the test.
“One of the things we’d love to do is improve technology in residences and business and for the work force that will actually want to live here,” Clarke said. “Right now, people who work in the tech firms live elsewhere because this is offered there.”
Burlingame also applied for consideration and opened the application up to input from the community in early March.
According to San Carlos Assistant City Manager Brian Moura, a number of residents had nominated the city so elected officials followed their lead.
Moura said the advantage San Carlos could have is the interest of neighboring cities — including San Mateo and Burlingame — to allow Google to test a network of communities rather than just one.
The decision now is in the hands of Google officials. The company said it will pick from the tens of thousands of applications later this year.
Moura also said he’s noticed Comcast increasing fiber optic lines.
“We are always about more choices and competition for our residents,” Moura said.
Company offers cities ‘Wi-Fi on steroids’
Clearwire Corp., a Florida provider that offers WiMAX — “Wi-Fi on steroids” — does want to provide wireless coverage in the region.
San Carlos Assistant City Manager Brian Moura said city officials are keeping their eyes and ears on advances made by Clearwire to set up shop around the Bay Area.
Clearwire spokeswoman Debra Havins said that while the company wants to expand, she could not provide specific dates or locations of potential service. Clearwire has requested permits for towers in several Peninsula cities, including South San Francisco, Daly City and Redwood City.
Clearwire’s WiMAX is already offered in several U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Chicago and Seattle.
Havins said the network, when available, would work much like cell phones in that a signal would be transmitted through towers.
Anyone can access it, including residents commuting to or from work, people working at a park or people streaming movies.
Even gamers could access it with card or built-in chip, Havins said.
“We like to describe it as Wi-Fi on steroids,” she said. “Wi-Fi was measured in a matter of feet, but WiMAX would cover an entire city.”
What’s the 411?
- What: Wi-Fi lets a computer, game console or cell phone connect to the Internet without wires or phone lines.
- How: It uses radio waves, rather than costly wires and cables. Large coverage areas need multiple access points, like multiple cell towers, to achieve fast access.
- Cost: Sometimes it is offered for free, with cost borne by a business to attract customers, like at coffee shops, hotels or airports. In other cases, a municipality might offer it supported via taxes or subscription fees.