Aurora, Illinois Announces Free Wireless

Aurora, Illinois was the first city in the United States to install public street lights. Look for wireless equipment on many of those lights providing the populace with free access (for the price of looking at an ad) by the end of this year.

Aurora (pop. 170,000), which issued an RFP late last year looking for companies to install a citywide network, said today it’s working with California-based MetroFi on a deployment that should cover the entire 42 square mile city.

MetroFi provides almost identical service in the Silicon Valley towns of Cupertino, Santa Clara and Sunnyvale. Access for anyone with Wi-Fi equipment is free at speeds of 1Mbps download and 256Kbps upload; users who want to avoid the commercials can pay $20 a month. Speed doesn’t increase, however. As MetroFi Vice President of Sales and Business Development Ben Zifrony puts it, “We want both higher speed/greater experience for both. There are others that have low speed and if you want to go faster you pay, but not us.”

The provider’s preferred equipment is from SkyPilot Networks, which makes mesh backbone equipment that can be installed on street lamps, with units called the SkyExtender DualBand that integrate a Wi-Fi access point for end user connections. This is the fourth network SkyPilot has launched with MetroFi. Zifrony says Aurora is MetroFi’s first announced network outside of California, but that MetroFi is in the running with other cities (some that have issued RFPs like Portland, Oregon and San Francisco, as well as some that didn’t even include that step — “There’s a number of them,” he says).

Narrowing the “digital divide” by providing the network was a key factor for the diverse city’s decision to look into the network in the first place. The city is creating a foundation to help low income families get laptops so they can take advantage of the network.

Right now, it does not appear that the network will support the 4.9GHz band for public safety, though Zifrony and others say that was discussed. The city will likely exchange unfettered access to city light poles for free access to the network by city government and employees in the field. In that way, it will be a mixed use network, with different types of users separated by use of virtual LANs and different SSIDs.

The city anticipates the network rolling out in phases, but moving swiftly to get equipment installed within six to twelve months.

Aurora points out that it was the first city in the state of Illinois to plan and announce such a network; its larger neighbor, Chicago, only announced tentative plans for a network in February.

Cost to deploy the network will be about $1 million, and will be all on MetroFi; the city expects to pay nothing, nor will taxpayers.

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