In wake of 3-year 'cyber anniversary,' Google seeks WiFi input with community meeting

Photo Town Crier File Photo

Googles WiFi equipment is attached to street lampposts.

Google and the city of Mountain View celebrate their three-year cyber-anniversary this summer, with the jury still out on the market impact of residents’ complimentary access to WiFi Internet services.

Google has scheduled a public forum 7 p.m. today in the Havana Conference Room at 900 Alta Ave., Mountain View, to share findings and solicit feedback on how to improve its network.

Karl Garcia, a Google technical staffer, said the company devised the WiFi network as part of a social contract with Mountain View.

"The idea is community oriented," he said, "We just want to continue that."

In 2006, Google launched free WiFi availability across 12 square miles in its hometown of Mountain View. Since the initial unveiling of the program, the company has increased bandwidth in an effort to meet growing demand. While some local techies report quick and easy access from their homes and businesses, others have thrown up their hands in frustration.

According to Google, "unwiring" Mountain View enables the high-tech giant to support the local community. Because many Google employees reside in Mountain View, the city is an ideal test market and model for other cities.

At the WiFi opening in 2006, Google Product Manager Minnie Ingersoll trumpeted the WiFi initiative as a way to give back to and engage with the community.

"It has been tremendously rewarding," Ingersoll said, "to partner with the local government, the schools, the library, the neighborhood associations and all of our trusted testers."

Google's WiFi network seeks to promote alternative access technologies. Ingersoll's early blogs expressed hope that "mesh wireless deployments would promote competition, create cheaper access alternatives and foster open, standards-compliant platforms."

Upon debut of the program, Google installed 360 access points called nodes. Today, that number has grown to 500, with nodes situated on city-owned light poles and privately owned homes. This June, active users increased from 16,000 to 19,000 people.

"Although the metrics aren't great, we see incredible usage," said Google spokesman Andrew Pederson. "This is one of the most heavily used networks in the world."

"It's hard for me to issue a decree on how satisfied residents are," said Ellis Burns, Mountain View's economic development manager. "But I will say that citizens have benefited, fully understanding the imperfect system. In these tough economic times, it's nice."

It seems Google's free WiFi works best as an outdoor network providing Internet access in parks, on the street and in city hall. To date, Google has completed nearly three years of a five-year contract to provide free WiFi to Mountain View, with caveats to allow for two five-year renewals if the city and Google agree. Currently, there are rumblings that Google may install a fourth station, a hub for the wireless network, on the radio monopole at the police station. Mountain View police may also use WiFi to enhance their data collection possibilities in patrol cars.

The broadband connection afforded by Google WiFi within city limits will offer cheaper and faster data connections.

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