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Utility district’s free Wi-Fi is growing in popularity, and coverage
POULSBO — As the weather warms, visitors to downtown Poulsbo won't have to forego checking their email when leaving a coffee shop for the sunshine — like that cup of coffee, they take the Internet with them.
Free wireless Internet, faster than a broadband or 4G network, has been available in downtown Poulsbo since January.
The public project, managed by the Kitsap Public Utility District, is slowly expanding. There are currently four antennas in the downtown core — one on the roof of Hare & Hounds Pub, The Loft, First Lutheran Church and a “mesh site” on Tizley’s Europub.
David Jones of KPUD said the district is monitoring where the signals are, and what kind of uses people are logging on for, say emailing or video streaming.
“We’re learning very rapidly,” he said.
Each antenna is two to three feet tall with a small mast that “shoots” the signal 360 degrees around. KPUD Telecommunications Superintendent Steve Perry said each antenna is less intrusive than a satellite dish.
The project is gaining popularity. The City Council has long supported the idea of this project and is working out a contract to allow an antenna to be installed on City Hall and possibly the Marine Science Center.
Jones said he has also received an OK from the Port of Poulsbo and is talking with potential partners in Port Orchard and Bainbridge Island.
Perry said the district is starting to experiment with signal in different topographical areas. An antenna is on the Kingston Library off Highway 104 and another is on KPUD property in a residential neighborhood at South Kingston Road and Hillbend Lane. The North Kitsap School District has signed a contract for an antenna on the district office.
KPUD is testing its capabilities in the midst of trees and houses, and how the signal interacts with large bodies of water like Liberty Bay.
Perry said the district has been putting up a few antennas, finding holes in service, and installing a “mesh site” that captures the signal and regenerates it.
KPUD is a water-service provider, but is experimenting on how to better use Kitsap’s hundreds of miles of fiberoptic cable. KPUD installs the antenna, and the business or government agency pays for the electricity to run it. The antenna draws an Internet connection from the cable.
The cable was originally installed to provide an emergency communications platform in case of regional or national disaster. In 1999, Washington state passed a law allowing public utility districts to provide wholesale telecommunications services. KPUD can use a portion of unlit fiber, called dark fiber, to wire rural regions not getting attention from private providers, but cannot sell access to the Internet, according to City Councilman Ed Stern.
Jan Kampbell, public relations officer for CenturyLink in Western Washington, said the KPUD project creates “a more competitive market,” and she believes there will be “more of these public ventures in the future.”
“I have read about other areas that are venturing in the same direction as Kitsap Public Utilities,” she said via email. “I have not yet seen any real success stories due to cost.”
Wilford Saunders of the state broadband office recently tested downtown Poulsbo’s Internet speed. Using an interactive map on www.broadband.wa.gov, Saunders said he tested three areas and found all had faster speeds than the typical 4G speeds from a commercial provider. He also said KPUD’s Internet is pretty fast compared to the rest of the state’s networks.
Sitting at Jensen Way and Front Street, Saunders received 32 megabits download speed, 12 megabits upload speed. A 3G network typically has 1-3 megabits download speed.
A bit is a tiny piece of data flying around an electronic web; in this case, the Internet. A megabit is one million bits. A landline telephone call requires about 32,000 bits per second. An email can be sent over 1.5 megabits per second.
He said this project, like other similar efforts by municipalities, is good for the state’s economic development — improving business and mobility, as well as connecting friends and family.
City Council members, like Stern, are excited about the capabilities in residential areas. Having access to high-speed Internet can enhance and diversify home-based businesses, which Poulsbo supports.
Councilman David Musgrove said this project can help grow a community by “helping the community build themselves.”