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Benjamin Spillman

Las Vegas unplugged

21 June 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- A place where coinless slot machines are considered high technology is moving closer to the ranks of cities with widespread wireless Internet access.

On Wednesday, the Las Vegas City Council approved agreements that allow two companies to install wireless Internet equipment on streetlights, traffic signals and school flasher poles.

The vote puts Las Vegas one step closer to offering communitywide access to high-speed wireless Internet access for city workers and residents, but experiments in other cities indicate years could pass before Southern Nevada gets an integrated, widespread network.

"In terms of making a whole city into a hot zone, the jury is out as to how it is going to work," said Glenn Fleishman, Seattle-based editor of the blog Wi-Fi Networking News. "In order to reach critical mass, it is going to be a couple years after a city is up and running."

The agreements approved Wednesday are with Cheetah Wireless Technologies of Las Vegas and ExteNet Systems of Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.

Under the terms, the companies could rent poles for an adjustable rate starting at $1,032 per pole annually, plus 5 percent of retail sales revenue.

Clark County is considering a similar arrangement but has questions about how the equipment would share electricity with traffic lights.

"The streetlights are not as critical if they go out," said Mike Harwell, franchise manager in the county's business license department. "But traffic lights ... those are a little more important."

Both city and county are contributing to a study that will outline the merits and drawbacks of government participation in a wireless network that would cover the entire Las Vegas Valley. Results are expected next month.

"The truth is, the technology is still evolving," said Joseph Marcella, director of information technology for Las Vegas. "We don't want to spend $10 million, $15 million, $20 million to find out it is only 80 percent effective."

Municipal wireless networks have been the subject of experiment in a growing number of cities, including Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Antonio and Sacramento, Calif.

Proponents have said the technology is a cheap and easy way to make city governments more efficient through the ability to transmit information on everything from law enforcement to building inspections.

The networks are touted as a way to bridge the digital divide, the technological gap that separates people who can afford Internet access and those who cannot.

Cities participating in the networks seek arrangements that allow providers to use assets such as utility poles for installation and reap the profit in exchange for discounts or free service for government and residents.

"Wi-Fi is incredibly cheap, and there is no recurring fee for using the spectrum," Fleishman said.

In some instances, Internet and voice access that can cost $60 to $80 per month or more through a cellular provider might be half the cost via Wi-Fi. That is in part because Wi-Fi signals travel on an unlicensed spectrum, meaning the providers do not have to buy air space for the signals.

But installing networks and deploying the technology is easier said than done, especially when city politics is involved.

In Philadelphia, approval and deployment of a network that met city leaders' standards took more than two years. In Sacramento, city officials negotiated a deal for a network then backed out when a better-looking agreement came along, and the technology is yet to be deployed.

In Las Vegas, providers would have to contend with competition from cellular and cable providers and signals that hotels beam to their guests.

"There could be so much interference," Fleishman said. "It is possible the hotel network could overpower the network from outside."

The appeal of the agreements approved Wednesday is they do not bind the city to anything but its offer to rent light poles, said Chris Ware, franchise officer for Las Vegas.

That allows providers such as Cheetah and ExteNet to install equipment and start building a customer base while the city and county await the results of the study.

If the companies fail, the government does not lose any money. If they succeed, the governments earn money and the opportunity to cut deals for workers and residents to use the network.

"It is really up to the providers to find if they can find a business model that works for them," Ware said.