Wi-Fi project could be start of something big

POULSBO — Councilman Ed Stern believes the Internet should be free and open to the public.

He is encouraged by a new pilot project in Poulsbo delivering free wireless Internet access.

The Kitsap Public Utility District, an independent agency with its own board of commissioners, is installing antennas in downtown Poulsbo to provide free wireless Internet access. The project is testing the waters to determine demand and how it will be used, said Steve Perry, district telecommunications superintendent.

“Wireless has always been a service vehicle dependent on hills, trees, weather, a thousand variables,” Perry said. “We’re tired of vendors telling us, ‘Yes you can, no you can’t’ [install wireless antennas] because of topography. We just decided to do it and try it … We want see if it is something that’s viable in Kitsap County.”

The district is a water-service provider and manager of the county’s Coordinated Water System Plan and Ground Water Management Plan. In 1999, Washington state passed a law allowing public utility districts to provide wholesale telecommunications services. Its intent was to install an underground fiber optics network that would provide an emergency communications platform in case of regional or national disaster. The district has 120 miles of fiber optic cable around the county and, according to its website, will install an additional 100 miles using federal stimulus funds.

Stern has been a strong advocate of wiring Kitsap County for many years. In the late 1990s, he recognized the area was at risk of losing the county's technology companies because of inadequate Internet connections. Various groups, including Poulsbo's City Council, have been looking into how to build out the public fiber “backbone” for the last 10 years, Stern said.

“[The city’s] benefit is to attract businesses into this community, offering a level of communication the same as Seattle,” Stern said. Kitsap County has the fourth highest number of commuters in the country, and Stern would like to see more people telecommute or set up shop in Kitsap instead of losing time and money commuting to work, he said. The wireless canopy being developed by the utility district could help that.

“We’re always going to be surrounded by water,” Stern said. “How do we overcome this? We work with what we’ve got. Advanced telecommunications can finally overcome what everybody is still battling over — [how] to get to work.”

In the early 2000s, the state allowed public utility districts to use the portion of unlit fiber, called dark fiber, to wire rural regions not getting attention from private providers — as long as districts do not sell access to the Internet, Stern said.

The pilot project’s immediate benefits can be felt by anyone in downtown Poulsbo. The utility district has put up two antennas so far — at Poulsbo First Lutheran Church on 4th Avenue and Hare & Hounds on Front Street and Jensen Way. Each antenna costs around $10,000 for equipment and installation, which the utility district is covering. The district is creating a “wireless mesh” over downtown, as Stern put it.

Suzanne Droppert, owner of Liberty Bay Books on Front Street, said she and many other downtown merchants are very excited about the service. She’s asked the owner of her building to sign off on having an antenna installed on her roof.

“I think the stronger the signal, the more antennas downtown, the better for everyone; for our customers, anyone visiting,” she said. Droppert currently offers free WiFi, but will continue to pay for her own Internet service because she needs a strong signal for her store’s computer system. But the free WiFi will benefit the retail shops that don’t offer it.

Perry said the project will be spread around the county. He is talking with a lot of communities around Kitsap. “Everyone is interested in participating,” he said. “It’s community run, community based. We’d like to have the community involved in our network.”

Stern said Poulsbo was chosen as the pilot city partly because the city has the largest convergence of fiber optic cables in the county, and partly because Poulsbo is a great test site for the antennas — a small but dense city with a lot of hills.

The utility district does not collect any rent or payment for antenna locations. The antennas are paid for by a portion of the property tax the district collects. The project just provides Internet access, Perry said — no security, no tech support.

A wireless canopy presents some economic development opportunities.

“There’s nothing to stop a user from regenerating the signal,” Perry said. For example, if a household receives a strong signal from the district’s fiber optic cable but its neighbor doesn’t, the two can split the cost of another antenna and push the signal further.

Perry said he will eventually be expanding out into rural Kitsap, to test the capabilities for residential areas. Or, a private company can step in and offer the access, along with tech support, for a fee.

The utility district will be collecting data on what the signal is being used for. Perry said the district is not collecting information on a user or his or her computer, but will be looking at the type of webpages used — streaming video on YouTube or Netflix, browsing the web, or just using email. The district will then be able to tell how many antennas each area needs.

Perry said there is no timeline for the project.

“As long as it’s successful, and there’s demand for it, we’ll continue to test and vet different areas,” he said. “It's an adaptable project.”

Correction: This article has been changed to correct where KPUD's fiber optic cable is. The majority of the 120 miles of cable are not buried, but on electrical poles.

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