Think Geek. That's what leaders of places like Philadelphia and Seattle are doing when they announce plans to drape their cities in wireless networks using the Wi-Fi standard. While Lexington has yet to announce its own plans to go wireless an interesting experiment is underway off of Harrodsburg Road that just may point the city in that direction.
Joe Mufford, of the Kentucky League of Cities, says that Wi-Fi is "one of those infrastructures that has become essential in every community." Cities throughout the country and the world, from Philadelphia to Jerusalem, realize this and have announced plans to construct networks that would turn the cities into massive "hot-spots," the standard term for a location where wireless access is available. Municipal wireless networks are the latest notion put forth by city leaders to draw the newly minted creative class to their cities.
LFUCG has been decidedly mum on the subject, but Chuck Williams is hoping to get their attention.
An online search for Wi-Fi access in Lexington brings up a short list consisting mostly of hotels and Bluegrass Airport. A few local businesses are also in on the act, but for the most part, unless you're a traveler, you get your web access at home and work only. Definitely not on a bench in Phoenix Park, but that could all be about to change.
Williams, one of the guys behind Lexington Wi-Fi along with president Mark Sievers, has a plan in place for making Lexington a wireless city. For years Williams toiled away at various IT firms before the dot-com bubble burst. When it did, an idea that had been bumping around the back of his mind for awhile moved rapidly to the forefront.
Meeting Williams is on a sunny afternoon in front of the apartment complex where he is conducting a market test of his service, he is circling his van doing a cell phone walk and talk. It takes hearing only a few snippets of the conversation to learn that Williams is doing what he does best: pitching his product.
Williams, who speaks in the raspy voice particular to salesmen, loves what he is doing. It's discernible in the rapid fire way the mix of techno-jargon and layman's science flies out of his mouth and the excitement crackling in his eyes. "I'm just a poor guy with a really good idea," he says again and again.
His "really good idea" is a Wi-Fi system that works similarly to a cellular phone network by using an antenna to broadcast the signal over a wide area. Using this type of system Williams is able to concentrate the signal, boost power and deliver broadband over a broad
There are other ways of delivering Wi-Fi to the masses. For instance the so-called "mesh" systems based on linking tons of tiny "hot-spots" as Philadelphia has proposed to do. Williams says his method is better and offered this analogy for distinguishing between the two. Mesh systems work much in the same way that throwing a rock into a pond works. The ripples, or signal, spread out from the middle hitting all of the users within the range while also wasting much of the signal. A signal like the Lexington Wi-Fi signal on the other hand works like a spotlight on a stage. The individual actor that is speaking, the user in other words, gets the full attention of the signal. And, Williams added, "If there is more than one actor speaking they all get the spotlight."
Right now the spotlight is focused on the Beaumont area near Harrodsburg Road. The area Williams selected to test the marketability of his product covers the shops and restaurants in Beaumont center, the hotels there, two upscale residential neighborhoods and the Beaumont Farms apartment complex. The area serves as one big showroom and a small scale version of every town in America, including Lexington.
"I believe one of the emerging, but currently little understood stories, is that once you have an area Wi-Fi enabled, it opens up potential for reengineering how things can be accomplished more productively. We are an increasingly mobile society and Wi-Fi dovetails with that," Sievers said. But don't be misled, they are going after the average net user. While interviewing Williams we meet an elderly woman who uses the Wi-Fi connection in her apartment to do little more than email her granddaughter. As far as home users go, the target customer of Lexington Wi-Fi is the dial-up user that has yet to switch to broadband via other means.
The broader scope of Williams and Sievers' plan, the part that really gets Williams going, involves outfitting the entire city with their antennas and then offering their service to LFUCG. If they can achieve this, Lexington stands to benefit greatly, but so far Lexington Fayette County has been reluctant to come aboard. Williams says he's heard time and time again "Great idea, Chuck, but we have no money for you."
An entirely wireless city benefits every person in that city, and in turn more people will want to live in that city. More importantly tech-hip cities attract what is being labeled the creative class, an important sector of the population vital to economic growth and development. "This infrastructure has become as important to the current time as were rivers and highways to the industrial economies," Mefford says. "It becomes necessary to succeed in areas where the majority of new jobs are being created in non-manufacturing [sectors]." In other words, jobs that belong primarily to the creative class.
The right combination of amenities to attract Richard Floridas "Creative Class" can be elusive, but technology is definitely part of the equation.
Florida's theories can induce Zen like thought, as they are quite like the age old conundrum of chicken or the egg. Technology draws talent, he says, and talent draws technology. Simply put, creative people tend to gather in places where technology is readily available. More and more cities are betting that Wi-Fi is key among the technologies they need to offer. It's flashy, and as an added bonus, it's cheap. Using his technology, Williams says he could unwire all of Lexington for about $550,000.
If it chooses to adopt the technology Lexington can do a lot more with Wi-Fi than allow the latte crowd to log on from a curbside table. Law enforcement, fire departments and emergency response teams all stand to benefit from a city wide wireless network. Beat cops could file their paperwork from the street using car mounted laptops over a secure connection, meaning more street presence. Emergency teams could access floor plans and other vital information en route to an emergency call. Meter attendants would be able to access vehicle and parking violation records in real-time, helping them to make better decisions about a current violation. The uses of the technology are manifold, and would integrate seamlessly into nearly every aspect of the city's daily tasks.
Offering public internet access is not unfathomable. A network like the one Lexington Wi-Fi uses can theoretically be as large as a cellular network. With enough antennas even the rural areas of Fayette County could access it. If the city so chose, it could offer everyone Internet access for free or at a discounted rate.
So far the market test is going well.
After only two months of operation with limited advertising, Lexington Wi-Fi has picked up over 40 customers and should reach fifty to sixty more my the end of October. In addition to their subscribers, 3 to 4 guest users per week have been logging in from the hotels around Beaumont Center. The numbers aren't phenomenal but they are exceeding projections.
At the end of testing next month Williams and Sievers' hope to get the city and a few more investors on board. "We've got one tree up," Williams says, "now let's start planting the rest of the forest." n
I'm standing in the Beaumont Farms parking lot and what is basically the core of Lexington Wi-Fi's coverage area. Williams, dressed in jeans and a striped polo shirt, is pointing out the antennas he's attached to several of the buildings in the apartment complex. These, he explains, work as "bridges" spanning any gaps between the main signal and the user base. These help eliminate any holes in the coverage created by buildings, trees, and other obstructions. Because the current antenna is only six stories high it faces more obstructions than normal. A full-scale rollout would mean higher antennas and less need for the bridges.
After going over a little more technical information Williams hands over his laptop, directs me to his office a bench near the complex's clubhouse and lets me test drive the service.
My first experience with Wi-Fi isn't spectacular but is admittedly cool. Sitting outdoors on a breezy fall afternoon I'm able to check my email, stream audio, and just for kicks I pull up my blog. All of it loads blazingly fast. This has a lot to do with our proximity to the signal, Williams says, but it' still impressive.
So what though. How many of us find ourselves outdoors wishing we had access to our email? Many agree that the problem with the increasingly mobile workspace is we're at work more now than ever before. If we can work anywhere, at anytime are we ever really off the clock? While I can envision certain scenarios where having Internet access out of doors, like pulling up an online radio station on my laptop while grilling for friends for instance, I don't see it as something I can't live without.
Luckily Williams and Sievers recognize this and see broader uses for their service. n
The Creative Class
The term creative class can be credited to Richard Florida, Professor of Regional Economic Development at Carnegie-Mellon University.
According to his book The Rise of The Creative Class, this group of people, the core of which are scientists, engineers, architects, designers, educators, artists, musicians and entertainers, will be the driving force behind economic growth and development in cities throughout the world. These people aren't drawn to cities by traditional means. Massive downtown malls, sports arenas, and theme park-styled entertainment districts no longer hold the sway they oncedid.
The mindset of the creative class is a bit different and their desired amenities those things people search for when looking for a place to live aren't what cities are used to providing. n