In early April, the City of Alexandria will offer a new wireless network that will allow laptop computers and personal digital devices access to the Internet. Use of the wireless network will be free, a public service provided by the city government.
"Alexandria is an old town with something new to offer," said city e-government manager Craig Fifer, who helped create a similar wireless network in Roanoke. "It will give people yet another reason to come to Old Town."
The network will cover King Street from Washington Street to the Potomac River. It will be accessible in Market Square and at the marina. Residents, tourists and business travelers will be able to use the service, which will be created by four access points that will reach a maximum of 750 feet. Each of the access points are about the size of a large phone book, and the city plans to install them within the month.
The city is hesitant to provoke a fight with large-scale phone and cable companies, which have been pushing states to pass legislation that could make it illegal for municipalities to offer wireless Internet services. For example, Verizon launched an intensive lobbying campaign that prompted the Pennsylvania General Assembly to pass a bill outlawing municipalities from owning broadband-for-charge operations in 2004. Alexandria's technical deployment will be on a much smaller basis than Philadelphia, which proposed creating a wireless network that covered the entire city.
"We are not trying to compete with the private Internet service providers," said Fifer, noting that the city's goal of providing the service to city residents was compatible with private businesses that offer Internet service. "I wouldn't try to run your business with it. These products are specifically designed for outdoor use, so I wouldn't recommend that Old Town businesses try to use the wireless network for mission-critical business applications."
THIS WEEK, the city awarded a $13,815 contract to Tropos Networks, a Sunnyvale, Calif., company that has installed wireless systems in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Kandahar, Afghanistan, where donated hardware was used to allow troops to keep in touch with loved ones in America. The company's ability to provide an outdoor network at no cost to the user proved to be the decisive factor in the bidding process. It has helped create similar "hot spots" near the Capitol in Baton Rouge, La., and the Love Park section of Philadelphia.
The city will pay $650 a month for bandwidth through MCI as part of a contract with the commonwealth of Virginia. The Tropos contract and the MCI Internet service will come from a $50,000 allocation made by the city government last year to explore creating a wireless network in Old Town. Because the funds are part of the Capital Improvement Program, money that isn't used this year can roll over into next year's budget.
"Alexandria is the second city in the country to use capital improvement program to fund information technology development," said Fifer. "We believe that a wireless network has a lot of advantages that are useful to the city."
FIFER BELIEVES the potential for this technology is vast. In the future, fire engines might be able to look at live video of upcoming intersections. When traffic lights malfunction, a signal could immediately be sent to city officials. Real estate assessors could find out information about a property without moving to the nearest computer. This is a kind of technology that Tropos offers in other areas. For example, a Tropos system in New Orleans supports video surveillance in high crime areas. The company also supplied hardware for Corpus Christi, Texas, where an automated system provides access of crime and geographic databases for first responders.
"We are exceptionally pleased with customer and market interest from around the world for applications ranging from mobile access to police databases to video surveillance to residential Internet access and voice-over Wi-Fi [wireless fidelity]," said Tropos president and CEO Ron Sege. "Given the wide variety of customer inquiries from many geographies, 2005 will be the year when metro-scale WiFi hits the mainstream."
The prospect of creating a cutting edge technology for Old Town's historic streets presents opportunities for Wi-Fi users who have a laptop or PDA (personal digital assistant) within the area's coverage. Fifer is excited about the many ways people might use the network.
"You could read a restaurant review before you decide where to eat," he said. "You could find out the hours to the Torpedo Factory. You could send and receive e-mail."
WHEN THE CITY holds its "Wire-Cutting Ceremony" to launch the network in early April, a marketing campaign will be initiated to announce the new service to people in and around Alexandria. The new wireless network is part of a cutting edge tradition that city officials are quick to mention.
"Alexandria was one of the first cities in America to have a Web site," said assistant city manager Mark Jinks. "It was also one of the first cities to have a fiber-optic institutional network, which connects almost all of the city facilities by fiber."
Every laptop that is Wi-Fi enabled will have free access to the Internet if it is within 750 feet of one of the city's four access points.
"If the program is successful, there is the potential to expand the wireless network into other business areas of the city," said Jinks. "This will give people who had been confined to stationary locations an extra freedom to get out and enjoy Old Town."