Chapel Hill WiFi Pilot needs different Hotspots

Tomorrow night the Chapel Hill Town Council will hear a staff proposal for a WiFi pilot project. This project has been a long time coming. One of the first reasons it was proposed in 2005 was to increase equal access to the Internet for all citizens. Former Council Member Edith Wiggins made it clear that if WiFi were to be offered to any part of the community it should include Pine Knolls and Northside. Here is a video of all five locations that will be proposed. None of them are in Northside or Pine Knolls, none will be available indoors, and three of them are in parking lots.

Attached to the Wireless Pilot project memorandum is a pdf. Its called Wireless hotspot survey of downtown Chapel Hill [PDF]. (please read it) Part of this is a map that shows where the Town IT department conducted its survey of existing Wireless Hotspots. It also plots on the map 'Potential Town Sites' for wireless hotspots. There are five proposed spots, A thru E.

A is parking lot #2, B is parking lot #5, C is the IFC Shelter and Community Kitchen, D is the Wallace Parking deck, and E is the Post Office.

Based on the intent that Town wireless hotspots are to serve ALL people, several of these spots seem poorly selected. The argument put forth in the memorandum are technical ones. Such as there are already so many wifi hotspots on Franklin Street that interference would prevent the location of a Town wifi hotspot. These are legitimate concerns but can be overcome. No where does it mention how real people will use these wireless hotspots.

Three of the five proposed spots (A, B, and D) are auto parking areas. How would these spots serve citizens? With laptops in cars? Lawn chairs and laptops in parking spaces? The most likely use is real time credit card processing at the town's parking meters. I believe this is a secondary or tertiary use for Town wifi. The primary use should be direct Internet access for all citizens.

Location C at the IFC Shelter and Community Kitchen is an excellent idea but based on the information in the memorandum is set up to fail. Here's why.

From the memorandum:

The hotspot service would be open to all users on a “best available” basis; meaning that there is no guarantee of bandwidth, no round-the-clock maintenance support, and no on-line or dial-up user support. The type of antennae envisioned are designed for outdoor use and may not provide sufficient signal strength to penetrate buildings or allow users to connect beyond a few hundred feet.

How will anyone inside the IFC building use the WiFi? How are residents of the IFC shelter or guests going to use the WiFi? Without some kind of technical computer support and access to quality computers this WiFi hotspot could not be successfully used. Maybe the IFC has a plan to partner with the Town to provide these resources. I bet the Town IT department has other plans.

Location E at the Post Office has the same drawbacks as a hotspot at the IFC building. How would the teen center in the basement use this WiFi? The front of the Post Office is a public gathering place but hardly one where someone hangs out with a laptop. What does the Town IT department plan to use the hotspot for? Parking enforcement on Franklin Street?

The best spot of the five proposed locations is D - the Wallace parking Deck. The structure has a large public outdoor space on its roof. Sadly it is underutilized. The largest groups of people I have seen there is during the annual Hi Mom! film festival. If the Town spent some time and money its possible this location could become a popular spot to find Internet access. But the fact remains this is a parking deck. Wifi in this location would most likely be used for internal town use. Not the primary goal of providing Internet access.

I recommend that Mayor and Council ask the Town Manger and IT Manager to consider new wifi hotspot locations where any citizen can comfortably congregate. One such location is the Hargraves Recreation Center in the Northside neighborhood. This is a town building with the technical requirements to locate a wifi hotspot. Lets begin our first pilot project in a location that people will use and has a chance of success.

You can get a real idea of the spots on the Survey map by watching this video.



As a long-time computer geek, this reads like a recipe for disaster. If TCH had a much much better history of integrating technology well, then maybe I could see it, but this is not the way of it.

A little application of repeater technology, such as these
">nifty solar-powered wifi repeaters
that Duke is already looking at, would go a long way toward making this an actually useful innovation, rather than something that just makes the town feel good about itself.

Even without repeaters, I'm ready - got my lawn chair and my traffic cones so that I can mark out my parking space when I need to use some wi-fi downtown.

Seriously - put 'em in the parking lots and picnic areas at Homestead, the Cleland Dr. area near the Rainbow fields, and Cedar Falls, Community Center, and more bus stops. That's where they'll actually be useful.

Brian, you have been doing an absolutely stunning job following up on this issue.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Over three years ago I submitted a plot of 6 locations that would cover significant portions of Northside and reach into PineKnolls. The plot was based on real-world assays (using existing locked or unlocked AP's and "war driving" the areas using a Dell equipped with a Broadcom).

Since that time I've continued to survey these areas and continued to offer my expertise in siting appropriate locations - but with the end of the Tech Board it seems that citizen participation on the tech side is no longer appreciated.

There's so many problems with this memo, it's hard to imagine that this project isn't being setup for failure on purpose (the other option being some real incompetence - don't know which is worse). Unfortunately, I've seen this type of delaying maneuver used before when the Town, for whatever reason, didn't want to move forward.

Here's some specific criticisms, both technical and otherwise:

A pilot program to install a limited number of public internet access hotspots at locations in Chapel Hill would be beneficial in both gauging public interest and in evaluating ways to deliver the service before committing to a long term program. We can begin this by installing five hotspots this summer and evaluating their effectiveness.

In spite of our business community's offers to site AP's the hotspot choices have been reduced to Town locations only.

There's no discussion of the metrics (yes, I'm on my measure the results of our policies rant again) used to "gauge" the public interest. Is it going to be number of users? Length of sessions? Unique visits? How will outages be accounted for? What does "effectiveness" mean?

There are some good metrics for measuring Wifi uptake (even companies that will evaluate), does the Town plan to use those metrics? Further, will the Town release the raw stats so folks like Brian and I can do a separate analysis?

Again, if you don't publish your expectations upfront and provide a way to verify on the back-end, it's easy to tout the success or failure of the project.

The hotspot service would be open to all users on a “best available” basis; meaning that there is no guarantee of bandwidth, no round-the-clock maintenance support, and no on-line or dial-up user support. The type of antennae envisioned are designed for outdoor use and may not provide sufficient signal strength to penetrate buildings or allow users to connect beyond a few hundred feet.

Brian covered this fairly well but I'd like to know if the Town ever confabbed with Carrboro's staff (as the Tech Board recommended several times) to see how they're able to provide decent service with apparently little incremental cost.

As far as signal penetration, sitting in my second floor office on the corner of Church and Franklin, I can "see" 15-20 hotspots broadcasting everywhere from the Franklin Inn to BW-3 to UNC (at University Square).

The memo mentions 802.11 but doesn't specify A/G/N - which have various signal characteristics.

Regardless of the method chosen, there are a number of logistical issues that must be resolved in order to install the hotspots. These include selection of locations for hotspots, antennae mounting agreements, power supply agreements, and Internet connectivity agreements.

Again, the thinking here shows that folks haven't kept up with trends. Solar powered and other alternative powered units are currently available - and are not much more expensive than conventional APs.

One of the key limitations in developing a low cost program is the lack of Town facilities with existing broadband connectivity near public areas that would benefit most from the availability of the hotspots; thus Internet connectivity must be provided at a reasonable cost for the project to succeed as a low cost pilot program.

" lack of Town facilities with existing broadband connectivity near public areas" Great argument for the fiber project which will provide high-speed connectivity to Wifi hotspots covering about %90 of Town.

OK, what costs? What constitutes "low cost"? Brian has covered the "public" problem, but what determines a beneficial use? Since the trial is going on over the Summer and there's no mention of how the Town will promote its new connectivity, it's hard to imagine a great uptake in use even by those sitting in lawn chairs in the parking decks (though, Brian, the Wallace Deck and Post Office locations could serve North St. and Cobb Terrace).

Internet connectivity can be accomplished using Clearwire as the service provider which will eliminate the need for land line wiring and long term service agreements for the locations. The Clearwire Internet connectivity service, which is also wireless, will allow the Town to relocate the hotspot as may be desired.

Bob seems stuck on Clearwire. Clearwire is actually in competition with muni-networking and has worked to subvert public access elsewhere. That issue aside, the same kind of wireless connectivity to integrate these hotspots into the high speed Internet (what is called back haul) could just as easily (and I think as a public policy - better) be provided by the Town using WiMAX technology or meshed networking or a combination.

WiMAX, which is like Wifi but can cover areas 10-15 miles across and penetrate buildings easier, has become quite a bit cheaper and represents the next stage of wireless Internet.

Using WiMAX would be a great opportunity for the Town to start deploying communications capability that would serve not only this pilot but the needs of our first responders, building inspectors and other public functions. We don't leverage our expenditures very well (remember NextBus? We could've had hotspots at all the major stops plus onboard the buses).

The Town's technology strategy (has anyone seen that document?) should incorporate WiMAX as a necessary next step in integrating Town communication services. Here's the time to get two bangs for the same buck.

One of the difficulties of providing wireless Internet access in the downtown area along Franklin Street is the existing wireless environment. We recently surveyed Franklin Street and found signals from 111 Wi-Fi wireless devices along the street. These devices all compete for the same unlicensed wireless radio spectrum. Although the spectrum has 11 channels designed to reduce interference, there is no mechanism to optimize the usage. Thus someone desiring to connect to one of the Town's wireless hotspots may be unable to do so because of an interfering signal from one of the many wireless devices in use by businesses and individuals working and living along Franklin Street. We will attempt to optimize the connectivity through site location and channel selection.

What an incredible red-herring this one is....

From a policy perspective, the Tech Board covered this issue pretty well. Their idea - why not ask folks to voluntarily restrict their own APs to particular channels, reserving one for public usage. In other locales, private users have been more than accommodating.

Technically, 802.11b/g/n do use a limited number of channels that suffer from overlap issues (including signals from microwaves, portable phones and baby monitors).

The newer spec, 802.11n, uses a number of techniques (MIMO) to minimize interference. The cost of deploying an integrated 802.11 b/g/n solution is not much more (about $20-45 more per unit) than the old technology. Integrated 802.11N Wifi cards are becoming standard on newer equipment. The cost of upgrades to existing equipment has fallen to as cheap as $25.

A pilot that doesn't incorporate 802.11n is not a good test.

Beyond the technical aspects, though, we once again see how the lack of metrics or published expectations make evaluating the effectiveness of this trial.

While school is in and I'm eating on the porch over at Los Portillos, my laptop picks up about 20 APs which are mostly broadcasting on the APs (access points) default channel. Yes, the signal is degraded but for what I'm doing - flipping through my emails or scanning OP/STP/etc. - the 4Mbits/sec throughput is more than adequate. The Wifi over at WSM suffers the same problem but that issue hasn't turned anyone away.

So, as Brian said, a concern whose scope and impact on the end-user experience we don't know.

As far as end-user experience, I like to see a pilot that concentrated on a few areas with some specific expectations laid out. I like the idea of "West End Wifi" for measuring the potential economic impacts. There's a number of outdoor venues, a small pocket park, some shady benches, etc. that could make good use of an effective trial in that corridor.

And then there's the one of the big reasons I kicked this off 4 years ago - bridging the digital divide. Hargraves would make a great spot for not only localize Wifi (802.11) but as a WiMAX repeater for the Northside neighborhood. Using Hargraves as a distribution point so that incremental rollouts of APs servicing this community is a no-brainer. Of course, one might expect that 'net usage in this community would track the school schedule - so pitching expectations for Summer usage should be calibrated accordingly.

All together, this is a great example of why tapping into Chapel Hill's talented pool of volunteers can give a much better result.

For those of you who think my assessment is too harsh, I suggest you go back and read the last three years of posts on OP (and elsewhere) covering connectivity in our community. Read the notes (as incomplete as they are) of the disbanded Tech Board. A lot of these issues were discussed and hashed out years ago. For all that input, to arrive at this point, well, disappointed barely covers it...

Lost a blockquote in there... hope it's readable.

Blockquote fixed. :)

The Wireless mesh with solar is the way to go. I'm testing a few Meraki minis, that Bryn mentioned, right now. The indoor Meraki mini is $49. The outdoor Meraki mini is $99. These devices are ready for pro deployments. Check out the Meraki case study page for more info.

I also agree with WillR on asking citizens to change channels on their wifi routers. Its been done in other communities and isn't that far fetched. Own a access point in downtown Chapel Hill? Contact me and I'll come over and change the channel for you. Free!

Same for me... If you want to configure your AP for public or private access, learn how to share bandwidth safely or just change a channel, please contact me via Brian (we'll coordinate).

I learned a lot at tonight's council meeting. Its really amazing how much is going on.

As for the WiFi pilot project I think we'll get some other good locations for hotspots. Several council members and the Mayor recomended the Hargraves Community Center. Good idea! Now how will we (that means everyone) work to make this succeed at this location? I hope that the people who work, play, and live nearby are consulted.

The combination of technical issues and the fact that their isn't a Weaver Street type public place in Chapel Hill (not counting campus mind you) makes this project very hard. (One day lot 5 might have a public space good for the public to hang and use wireless.)

When I wrote the above I knew about the complexities. But maybe not to their full extent. Now I know more and want to tackle them even harder.

Where in the Town of Chapel Hill are good public places you would sit down and use wifi at? Please drop your ideas here. Be specific.

+ On Top of the Wallace Deck - If we had some chairs, shade umbrellas, electrical outlets, and access to public bathrooms it might be pretty nice up there. Sure is a lot of space. How can we make it more comfy?

+ Your idea here

Brian, Hargraves has been front-n-center in my recommendations for years. The Town has a direct connect to the center. Tonight I reiterated Hargraves as both a focal point and a distribution point for projecting signal into the Northside neighborhoods.

Sally was on point calling Bob out on the quiet death of the Gomains pilot. Sadly, our experience with that project doesn't seem to have been documented adequately.

With regard to Sally's comment about the Gomains project, I wrote to Jim Ward on February 27 of this year to ask for his help locating the reports that were responsive to his 2005 requests for a bi-annual report and the one year evaluation documented here: .

Specifically, a motion was unanimously adopted to conduct a test project in the Northside neighborhood to provide wireless access for students living in Town-owned housing units.
Council Member Ward pulled Item #4g, Pilot Program for Wireless Access. He said this was an effort to conduct a test project in the Northside neighborhood to provide wireless access for students living in Town-owned housing units. Council Member Ward noted that even though the resolution did not state it, he wanted it understood that the Council would hear about this project during the one-year period. He said he did not want the project to just disappear at the end of the one-year period. Council Member Ward asked that the resolution be amended to state that the Council would receive an evaluation and report at the end of six months and that there be an opportunity to consider continuing the project after the one-year period was completed.



When I wrote, I asked Jim what happened to the reports he and Dorothy Verkerk so precisely included in the resolution that was adopted unanimously on their consent agenda. I had been unable to find them anywhere on the Town's web site, nor could I find any information that would lead me to believe the Council terminated the pilot program. Any information or insight he could have provided would have been responsive and much appreciated. But I never heard from him, and probably for good reason. Like the project itself, Mr. Ward's influence has disappeared within the Town's IT department!

For those who didn't attend/watch last night's session, the issue with the Gomain project was, according to the town's IT director, computer access/skills. The town provided good used computers to a number of families in the Gomains housing development. But then those families needed technical support and town staff didn't have time to provide that assistance. Instead of asking people from the TechComm who had offered to help with this project or the school system with their well developed assistance program, the town instead took back the computers and shut down the program. I can't believe no one on council picked up on this and instructed the IT dept to reinstitute the program.

Setting up community wifi must be paired with basic computer access and training skills, especially in light of the well articulated desire to address socioeconomic inequities with technology access. There are MANY MANY resources within this community for helping the town implement that aspect of the project.

Gregg and Teri, glad you've jumped back in.

Gregg, ditto on the follow up.

Terri, as you know 3 mins. is not much time to respond to an issue and there's no follow up or rebuttal to staffs additional comments. It was news to me that Gomains had gone silent but I was not surprised. I almost blurted out something about "Why not contact the PTA's parent assistance program, the schools, the many local volunteer organizations trying to increase computer literacy?"

Brian has made it clear he'd be happy to use his expertise and contact list to help out on this project - did anyone contact him?

I know folks ready to pitch in and make this happen - and Bob knows that I've said I'd be happy to help - yet no ones reached out to tap me on this...

One last thing for both Terri and Gregg. Didn't hearing some of the bullets from the "needs assessment" feel a bit like a visit from the ghost of Christmas past?

Some of the suggested improvements were made nearly 6 years ago - to think of where we could be today if we'd move forward then....

I noted the congruence between many of the TechComm's recommendations and the needs assessment in an earlier post.

I was hoping you or Brian would pick up on the failure to include security standards.

3 minutes... I've been quite busy with my real life and haven't had time to draft a more detailed response for Council (probably would hit their bit bucket but what can you do?)

Privacy, security, open standards, broader use of non-proprietary software and formats, having coordinating management (I think a CIO function with teeth), etc. were either missing or lightly touched upon. That said, the report represents the closest we've come to a strategic/tactical game plan for technology since I've been involved in local affairs. I see it as one block in setting a firmer foundation.

As far as MUNIS. Four years ago, as you might remember, I asked the Town to produce categorized financial reports - similar to what the $99 QuickBooks can do - on the cash flows within our government. Couldn't be done, I was told, without significant effort. I found it hard to believe but on further analysis of MUNIS I realized, yep, it requires custom reporting and some gyrations to get the most basic of transactional data.

Since then, and as they've upgraded the system, I renewed my request for this data (and that it be posted regularly [and accurately] on the website). NADA.

Unlike most of the folks currently on Council, I believe our Town's strength lies with its residents (and less with its leadership).

Yes, we have boards and task forces but it seems like when they color outside the lines - like the HWCC or the Technology Board, they get disbanded. Others devolve into a Greek chorus approving whatever the flavor of the day is irrespective of common sense or rational counter-arguments. Or worse, for instance, the great work of the Downtown Parking Task Force, which appears to have just become a "beard" for extracting two more "units" from each of our Downtown visitors.

Given that, I'd like to open the inner workings to the greatest number of folks possible to get the greatest variety of viewpoints to cull from (for example, given the high level of interest, the school district should be exposing their finances).

For the Town, that's putting the kind of data out there which would tell our citizens how many cellphones staff has and how much we pay for the service, how many rolls of toilet paper are consumed per quarter and their unit price, how much we're paying for desktop computers or gassing up all the Town's vehicles. I assume we're generally getting a good bang for our buck but it would be nice to have the hard numbers.

I also believe folks out in the greater community might review a part of the picture within their interest or expertise and come back with some excellent refinements.

Again, we can't do this, I've been told many times, because MUNIS can't spit out this level of detail.

Will, that needs its own blog entry. Let me tell you, there is some truly unbelievable sh!t coming out of the Town's business offices. I don't think anyone has any way of finding out even the simple stuff like how many rolls of toilet paper are used annually or whatever.

If you do put this question into a separate entry, ask me and I'll tell you what probably happened to a lot of the materials for the street beautification project which got shuffled off the backs of trucks during the Public Works move this past weekend. We're talking pallets of bricks, pallets of cement blocks, and other material all disappearing.

Bryn, would you drop me an email? campaign AT


Today's Chapel Hill enews introduces another point of congruence between the technology needs assessment and the recommendations proposed by the TechComm. The TechComm proposed the creation of a ombudsmen position that would facilitate an edemocracy initiative. We're getting closer.

Communications and Public Affairs Department Formed

The Town of Chapel Hill has established a new department, Communications and Public Affairs, Town Manager Roger L. Stancil announced today. Its mission will be to increase public awareness, understanding and participation in government, and to support the Town's strategic directions.

The department, led by Sabrina Oliver, will become effective July 1 through the merging of related functions within Town government, the Town Clerk's Office, the Town Information program and web content management. No new staff members will be required initially, although the department eventually will staff a web publisher and a graphic designer. The department is located on the second floor of Town Hall, 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

The department is designed to improve citizen outreach through news media relations, internal and external communications, vital records maintenance and provision, citizen education and service programs, and marketing activities.

"We want to inform and engage citizens in the governmental affairs of Chapel Hill through Internet and other media." Stancil said. "We also want to offer new capabilities and outreach for constituents to complete business interactions with the Town."

The Council has expressed its desire to assist citizens with communicating their opinions on major issues quickly and easily; to allow citizens to communicate with local government about the information they need or problems they experience; and, to give the public more information about government policies and decisions. This will be accomplished in part by enhancing the Town's web presence and using technology to expand civic engagement and services.

A recent technology study targeted the Town's website as needing improvement. The goal of moving responsibilities for web content to Communications and Public Affairs is to enhance compelling content and two-way communication opportunities. This will be a joint effort with the Information Technology Department and collaboration from all departments.

Outreach functions of Communications and Public Affairs include:

- Production and design of web content at, including live (and archived) streaming video of Council meetings
- News releases, media conferences and information campaigns
- Records and public notices of official actions of the Town Council
- Board and commission membership information
- TOWNweek bulletin published in The Chapel Hill News
- Town Guide to Services, an annual service guide
- Chapel Hill eNews, a weekly e-mail bulletin to subscribers
- Chapel Hill TV - Cable Channel 18, the government access channel

Thanks Terri. Great news. I hope the community outreach starts now - is a continuous effort (rather than a one hour, hard to attend meeting like the needs assessment) and integrative.

Sabrina, Roger, I and many of the folks on OP/STP and elsewhere in the local 'blog-o-sphere are open to helping anyway they can to facilitate citizen involvement. Hope you tap that resource...

Thanks Terri. Great news. I hope the community outreach starts now - is a continuous effort (rather than a one hour, hard to attend meeting like the needs assessment) and integrative.

Sabrina, Roger, I and many of the folks on OP/STP and elsewhere in the local 'blog-o-sphere are open to helping anyway they can to facilitate citizen involvement. Hope you tap that resource...

Wi-fi for the people

Brian Russell, the tireless fighter for public wireless in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro area, recently wrote two blog posts on the widely read local blog Orange Politics: Chapel Hill WiFi Pilot needs different Hotspots and Where is the WiFi? This received...


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