San Leandro, Calif., Launches Free Wi-Fi

by | April 8, 2015

By Brian Heaton

San Leandro, Calif., is taking the next step in its broadband evolution with a new, free high-speed outdoor Wi-Fi network.

The city will light-up SL Wi-Fiber in a four-block radius that encompasses the core of its downtown area this summer. The project follows on the heels of “Lit San Leandro,” a fiber-optic loop that provides up to 10 GB Internet speeds for users.

Tony Batalla, IT manager for the city, told Government Technology that the new network will tap into the existing public Internet connection at the San Leandro Main Library, where free indoor Wi-Fi is already available. Batalla explained that the connection is rated at 100 Mbps per second, but is “burstable” at peak usage up to 1 Gbps. He admitted, however, that the actual outdoor speed could vary, depending on router performance.

Mayor Pauline Russo Cutter added that SL Wi-Fiber is another step in San Leandro’s larger effort to invest city resources in the downtown area. She noted that the city council and executive staff has been interested in pursuing an outdoor Wi-Fi system “for years,” and after the success of Lit San Leandro, the council was committed to the concept of providing free access to the public.

The four-block area covered by SL Wi-Fiber includes Pelton Plaza, the Village – a new retail center on East 14th Street – Parrott Street, and Juana Avenue. Jeff Kay, business development manager for San Leandro, said the location was chosen because “it provides the most ideal opportunities” for city events.

“Some of the factors that we had to consider were proximity to the underground conduit that houses the Lit San Leandro loop, as this was our primary means to backhaul our wireless signal to our Main Library connection, as well as public gathering sites within the downtown area,” added Michael Hamer, assistant IT manager.

Challenges

Getting access to the backhaul – the in-ground fiber – and mounting locations are the biggest challenges associated with the project, according to Batalla. He noted that the easiest scenario is one where the city owns the buildings with network connectivity and have easy access to rooftops. But that isn’t the case in San Leandro.

The city had to request access to privately-owned commercial property and then determine where the best locations for access points would be, preferably with direct line of site to the wireless gateway. San Leandro’s Pelton Plaza sign – a city landmark since the 1940s – will serve as that gateway. Visual impact of the project, particularly given the historical value of city landmarks will also be mitigated.

“We are painting the network devices to blend in with their surroundings,” Batalla said. “And to deter theft, the devices will be secured with tamper-proof mounting gear.”

One thing Batalla isn’t overly concerned about is illegal use of the network – particularly downloading of pirated music, movies and other forms of entertainment. He explained that anyone connecting to the network has to agree to a terms of use agreement, and the city will work closely with Crosslink Networks, the local ISP, who will provide traffic monitoring so the network isn’t abused.

Batalla pointed out that the ISP – not the city – is responsible for responding to legal inquiries about suspicious Internet activity. And CrossLink is already responsible for that work at the San Leandro Main Library. In addition, the city is keeping the SL Wi-Fiber system completely separate from the one used by city staff.

Another thing Batalla isn’t worried about are other municipal Wi-Fi projects that were shut down. For example, Seattle cited costs associated with replacing equipment as the main reason why it shuttered its Wi-Fi. But Batalla pointed out that the SL Wi-Fiber project addresses several citywide goals and the biggest costs – Internet connectivity, wireless controller and fiber access – are already accounted for.

“While device replacement after the initial five-year warranty period poses a larger financial challenge, I do not imagine it will be cost-prohibitive,” Batalla said. “Besides, we could simply extend the maintenance contract if the system is performing well.”

Measuring Success

The $68,390 project was approved by the San Leandro City Council in March. Almost $38,000 is being used to connect the Pelton Plaza sign to Lit San Leandro. The remaining funds are being devoted to the purchase, installation and maintenance of the hardware needed for the Wi-Fi network.

To measure whether the city gets a good return on its investment, Kay said he believes it’s a simple matter of seeing whether sales improve at existing businesses in the Wi-Fi coverage area. He’ll also monitor whether there’s an uptick in use of San Leandro’s downtown plazas and public spaces, and whether there’s an increase in new businesses coming into the area.

From a technical perspective, Batalla said the metrics he’s most interested in are the number of simultaneous users on the network during normal and peak periods. Once SL Wi-Fiber goes live, Batalla will monitor actual bandwidth performance personally, to see how it holds up.

“You’ll probably see me walking around downtown measuring signal strength and doing Ookla speed tests on my smartphone,” he said “But, I’ll essentially be simulating what a real user is experiencing.”

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