Downtown Ponca City (photo courtesy of the Ponca City CC)
A municipal wireless network turns an entire city or town into a Wireless Access Zone, making wireless access to the Internet a universal service. This is done by creating a wireless "mesh" network. That typically involves installing routers--from a few dozen to hundreds -- deployed outdoors on poles and buildings. The number of routers determines how widespread the wireless service is: a few dozen makes the town square a Wi-Fi hot zone, a hundred or more makes the entire town hot. The "operator" of the network acts as a wireless internet service provider.
There are about 250 towns and cities in the US that afford their citizens universal and free internet access. The reasons why they provide the service range from wanting to attract tourists (it is, apparently, a great marketing tool) to making sure that people of all ages and incomes can access job seeking networks, local and emergency weather notices, and so on. The closest city-wide Wi-Fi hot spot is Ponca City, Oklahoma.
Ponca City is located in north central Oklahoma, about 18 miles south of the Kansas border, and 15 miles east of Interstate 35. Approximately 25,387 people live in in the city, about 1,000 less than the entire number of people living in Carroll County. The city's website says "Ponca City's Wi-Fi FREE Wireless Internet Service is offered to Ponca City residents as part of an ongoing effort to meet the ever changing needs of our hometown! With your Wi-Fi enabled device you can now go online for free by accessing the wireless network named "Ponca City Free Wi-Fi."
The city's Wi-Fi mesh network provides speeds in the 3 to 8 Megabytes capacity and has been recognized nationally for its ease of use and reliability. More than 11,000 people use it on a daily basis and more than 39 Gigabytes of internet data is transferred every hour; that is 935 Gigabytes a day, or over 28 terabytes a month. Wi-Fi is a trade name for the popular wireless technology used in home networks, mobile networks, and electronic devices, like laptops and iPhones that require a wireless network to connect to the internet, or to private networks.
The technology became available in Ponca City after an outdoor wireless network was installed to provide field communications for City services such Police, Fire, and Energy, improving worker efficiencies and level of service for customers. However, the testing of this network showed that it was robust enough to handle not only municipal traffic, but also citizens' traffic. So, the Ponca City Board of Commissioners voted to allow the extra internet access to be given to the citizens of for free. Ponca City is the first municipality in Oklahoma to provide this community service to its citizens.
With a Wi-Fi-enabled device, you get access to the internet and, once connected, users can check email, watch sporting events, check weather radar, or check the caloric content of different menu items while ordering at a restaurant, etc. Users can, of course, use iPhones to access websites, download applications, hook into MapQuest, and so on.
The construction of such networks is a significant part of their lifetime costs. Usually, a private firm works closely with local government to construct such a network and operate it. Financing is usually shared by both the private firm and the municipal government. Once operational, the service may be free, supported by advertising, provided for a monthly charge per user, or some combination therein.
Among existing networks, usage as measured by number of distinct users has been shown to be moderate to light. Private firms serving multiple cities sometimes maintain a single account for each user, thus allowing each user a limited amount of portable service.
As a frequent business and personal traveler, I often take advantage of any free Wi-Fi service I can find. Recently, I found myself in the library parking lot in Lapel, Indiana, where I was able to pick up an internet connection on an early Sunday morning. I was grateful that the service was available to me and thought, "wouldn't it be great if our towns--like tourist dependent Eureka Springs--provided such free access to folks?" In today's modern age that would really be Southern Hospitality!