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September 16, 2009 > Free wireless Internet access

Free wireless Internet access

By Dustin Findley

Free wireless Internet access is available throughout Milpitas. The providers, Silicon Valley Unwired (SVU), went to many Milpitas commissions to explain the service and how to use it.

At the September Community Advisory Commission (CAC) meeting Economic Development Manager Diana Barnhardt and SVU co-founder Andrew Gold presented.

Two years ago Barnhardt spearheaded a project to "unwire" Milpitas. Earthlink came to town and replaced the wired equipment with wireless network technology, most notably the rabbit ear antenna devices (nodes) visible on street poles.

Earthlink was unable to get their program off the ground, so they donated the installed equipment to the City.

Non-profit venture SVU founders Gold and Carl Garcia were commissioned by the City to build free wireless Internet access for Milpitas.

SVU reconfigured the equipment that Earthlink left behind.

Gold presented to the CAC the service that SVU provides and how anyone in Milpitas can use that service.

SVU, Gold stated, was born out of his and Garcia's to bring free broadband to different cities of Silicon Valley.

They believe that broadband WiFi (wireless Internet) is a service that all people should have access to.

The financial dynamics of achieving this are unknown, because the prior (business) models to provide WiFi to cities were mainly paid services.

SVU is looking for intelligent ways to build and maintain citywide wireless networks to provide free and basic Internet access that are also sustainable nature.

The nonprofit venture formed a partnership with Google to lay the groundwork for the Milpitas WiFi.

Gold showed a map of the network, with node locations, at the time of the presentation. This kind of technology lays the foundation for automating city services like water use measuring and electricity monitoring.

All firetrucks, as far as Gold knows, are outfitted with mobile WiFi units.

WiFi "is the most ubiquitous technology in the world for accessing data" Gold said.

He continued that "People should have at least basic Internet access." The ability to access email. The ability to access informational websites. Whatever may help job searches.

Being able to quickly and smoothly watch online or download video or music is not as important as basic access, but SVU will look into improving the network to allow more possibilities in the future.

These networks are custom tailored to provide basic access, so it will not be high speed enough for fast downloads of large files.

SVU has been working with Barnhardt to make presentations to the public about the network and how to use it.

"We want people to have a cleaner understanding of how to connect" stated Gold.

On a different day, Information Services (IS) Director Bill Marion explained to members of the Youth Advisory Commission that the network works better and the signal is stronger outside.

At this CAC meeting Gold shared that there is technology in the form of WiFi modems to amplify the Milpitas WiFi signal within the home.

If your computer has the necessary hardware to connect to WiFi, open the network monitor and connect to the network name (or SSID) "SVUPublicWiFi."

To connect the computer must have WiFi interface. Most laptops have a built-in interface or PCMCIA card.

Other computers can use a USB WiFi connector or PCI card. You can also connect is the computer is connected to a WiFi modem with Ethernet connector or WiFi antenna.

No encryption or authentication is required to get access to get online. At this time SVU is relying on the encryption built into Internet browsers to maintain the safety of personal information.

Many websites, like bank websites, traditionally have encryption built into them.

As SVU moves forward, and optimizes the network, they will add features, and add full encryption between the end user and the node outside.

The nodes that allow people to connect to the Internet wirelessly meet FCC regulations and pose no health risks, Gold explained.

The highest amount of users at one time, since the network's inception in June of 2009, is 800.

The potential savings of free WiFi are enormous, if you take the yearly costs of paying for wireless Internet access and multiply it by the number of people using the Internet.

Savings up to millions of dollars can stay in the Milpitas community,

Gold said that no one knows how to make these networks sustainable, so it really is an ongoing research project. He also said there are lot of little ways to generate revenue to fund the network.

The only "monitoring" that SVU does is to make sure the equipment is working, and they are bound by certain law to retain information for the government about IP addresses and which nodes those IP addresses came from. There is no "data mining" to spam people with targeted electronic junk mail.

"The network is wide open" Gold said.

The user can download anything, but large files will take more time, as the data transfer rate is about two megabytes per second.

The network, launched in June, is still beta quality.

SVU works with works with the mayor, Barnhardt and City IS staff to work on projects to improve the network and expand the wireless services available.

One project is to monitor data from speed signs to analyze traffic patterns to optimize lighting systems.

There are terms the user must accept and agree to before using the free WiFi, one of them being do not run a website on the network, according to Marion.

Visit www.svunwired.org or send an email to support@svunwired.org for more information.

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