May 13, 2006

Hundreds Grab Free Wireless

Kyle Stock  /  The Post and Courier

Less than 40% of peninsula covered, but where there's Wi-Fi, it's swamped

The city of Charleston's free wireless Internet network, ending its sixth week open to the public, has been swamped by surfers and stunted by city planners.

Contractors have covered only between 30 percent and 40 percent of the peninsula, which they agreed to cover entirely. But in the areas where there is a wireless fidelity, or Wi-Fi, signal, the city is grappling with an unexpected issue: demand.

Widespread Access LLC, which is building the network for the city, expected just 100 computer users a month to tap into the grid, but after six weeks almost 400 residents and businesses have registered to use the network, dubbed "theRadius." At times 250 separate surfers have been transmitting and receiving signals from a single antenna, volume that has slowed connections to a crawl.

"It's a good problem to have," said Widespread Access President Sam Staley. "Overall, we're getting a mix of good and bad (comments), to be honest ... and it really depends on where those people are."

The March 31 launch was a bold initiative to empower small businesses and close the so-called digital divide by plugging poor households into the World Wide Web. But Widespread Access has put further expansion on hold while it focuses on beefing up the network it has built to date. This week it received bids from five subcontractors and will accept one in the next few days "just to have more hands working on it," Staley said.

Evening Post Publishing Co., the owner of The Post and Courier and the content provider for the city Wi-Fi net, has been encouraged by the high usage, said Larry Collett, the company's Wi-Fi Web producer. However, the network was still in a "beta phase," he said. Evening Post has printed 2,900 postcards pitching theRadius to area businesses, but they won't be distributed until the grid is close to complete. "Really, it's not here yet; it's just that we've opened the network to let people hop on," Collett said.

The grid was delayed in recent weeks when the city's Design Review Board took issue with some of the antennas going up around the peninsula. Widespread Access took down a number of transmitters and is now wiring lightposts to send out signals. After a number of delays, the contractor said the grid will be complete sometime this year, but it is not giving a more specific estimate. "Early on we were giving dates, and unfortunately in technology, in a project this big, it's very hard to give an exact date," Collett said. "Our biggest concern and focus is the experience that our users have on the network. We want to make sure that we don't rush to put something out there that is not at 100 percent satisfaction."

Richard Kronick is still waiting for the city signal to reach his Queen Street office. Kronick has a signal-boosting antenna and several Wi-Fi signal "sniffers." When he finally picks up the network, he plans to stop paying $60 a month to get Internet service from Verizon's cellular network. "I can see the Mills House (hotel) signal and several in offices around here, but no Radius," Kronick said. "They may well be expanding their coverage, adding antennas or doing whatever they're doing, but I know it's not here yet."

Charleston is not alone in free Wi-Fi static. About 300 U.S. communities have opened or are developing public Wi-Fi grids, and many are struggling to hit deadlines, broker deals with contractors and provide the service they promised. Craig Settles, a California-based consultant who wrote a book on Philadelphia's public Wi-Fi project, said city-hired contractors often build subpar networks because they agreed to pay for them. Other disputes, like that between Widespread Access and city planners, revolve around where and how Wi-Fi assets are deployed.

"There's a bleeding-edge factor that's compounded by a lack of good sense," Settles said. "These are all preventable messes, but cities need to do their due diligence up front."

On the Web:
Preview the city Wi-Fi home site at