Class looks at citywide wireless net

Engineering and public policy professor Jon Peha, alongside several Carnegie Mellon students, presented a report to the Pittsburgh City Council last Thursday on developing a wireless broadband network for Pittsburgh.

Last semester, Peha created a project course to further explore the possibility of creating a wireless Internet network for the entire city of Pittsburgh. Seventeen undergraduate and four graduate students enrolled in the course. Those students came from a variety of fields, including electrical engineering and public policy.

Students in the course analyzed possible models for Pittsburgh’s wireless network. The group’s analysis culminated in a report, which Peha and several students presented to the Pittsburgh City Council last week.

Peha said that the report considers the financial sustainability of each wireless network model. It also considers how the wireless network may benefit the city by saving money and improving services.

Peha said that city agencies, for instance, could make use of the Wi-Fi Internet connection by creating parking meters that allow individuals to pay for parking through a credit card.

“There are a lot of cities trying to figure out how to get city-wide Wi-Fi right now...and there [are] many ways that you might think about doing this,” Peha said.

Downtown Pittsburgh created a Wi-Fi network in September 2005 that provides users with two hours of free Internet service. Peha said that the idea to create a project course arose from previous discussion to extend wireless Internet services to all of Pittsburgh.

In 2004, the Information Communications Technologies Working Group, a committee of public officials, telecommunication providers, and representatives from non-profit organizations, discussed the possibility of creating a wireless network for Pittsburgh. The development of a wireless network, however, never advanced beyond the discussion phase.

Peha said that the various models contained in the class’s report outline different roles for companies and non-profit organizations.
“These models in our analysis achieve some of the goals in some manner or another,” said Daniel Gurman, a master’s student in electrical and computer engineering who took the course.

Wi-Fi networks consist of multiple radio transmitters that communicate with one another. As a result, people can access the Internet virtually anywhere within the network. It is usually easier, though, to access the Internet outdoors because the signal is stronger.

Wi-Fi networks allow computers with the appropriate wireless hardware to receive information from the Internet via wireless routers. Wi-Fi networks send out high-frequency radio waves that are unlicensed, meaning that they are available to the public.

According to a 2004 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, the Information Communications committee concluded that “the question is not when but if the city should jump on the bandwagon with other U.S. municipalities that are starting to provide the public with inexpensive wireless Internet access.”

Baton Rouge, La., and Austin, Texas, are two of the many cities that currently provide free Wi-Fi Internet to the public. To access the free Internet service, users must be in a hot spot, or area of the city that has a strong Internet signal.

According to the research group’s presentation, the estimated cost to deploy and operate a wireless broadband network for the first year is $3 million. Furthermore, the estimated revenue during the first year is $3.4 million.

Having presented the report to the Pittsburgh City Council last week, Peha said that Councilman Bill Peduto expressed interest in the creation of a citywide Wi-Fi network.

“It seems like there’s a number of parties that are interested in moving forward,” Gurman said.

In its report, the Carnegie Mellon research team focused on the costs and benefits of Pittsburgh’s broadband network.

A citywide duopoly, for instance, involves the establishment of two Wi-Fi providers for all of Pittsburgh. After comparing the costs and revenues of the model, however, the group concluded that it would not break even within five years.

Alternatively, smaller providers could serve separate neighborhoods. The downside of that model, though, is that low-income neighborhoods might not receive wireless capability.

In their presentation last Thursday, Peha and his students outlined several goals for Pittsburgh’s wireless network, including ubiquitous coverage, competition among providers, and minimal cost.

According to the Post-Gazette, Verizon lobbied against the creation of a wireless Internet network in 2004 because of its cheap prices compared to the price of high-speed Internet.

Speaking of Verizon’s opposition to the project, Peha said, “It is certainly an issue that the city will have to deal with.” However, he said that the report’s review panel, which comprised mainly city leaders, included Verizon.

Peha will be continuing the project next semester with a smaller group of students as an independent study.

Gurman said that there are other aspects of the wireless network that may be explored.

“There’s a lot more work and a lot more options that could be analyzed,” Gurman said.