May 31, 2010 in City

Downtown HotZone in limbo

By The Spokesman-Review
Jesse Tinsley photo

Although he knows about the downtown Spokane Hot Zone, Cheyne Rossback uses a cell phone-based connection to use the Internet outside a downtown coffee shop on Thursday, May 27, 2010. The Spokane HotZone is a limited-time free wireless Internet over a 100-block area downtown. With the availability of other options for Internet users, use of the Hot Zone, a service sponsored by some downtown businesses, is declining.
(Full-size photo)

For the past six years people referred to it as Spokane’s HotZone. Within a year or so, it could be the Spokane HotZone Museum.

City and business leaders started the free wireless Wi-Fi area in 2004, eventually creating a 100-square-block area across downtown Spokane.

Today the zone is on its last legs. People can find the signal most of the time but frequently it is a weak Internet connection.

That is, when they even bother looking for the signal at all.

In today’s mobile device world, the idea of a wide-area metro wireless area has largely fallen into the technology irrelevance pile.

The equipment for the HotZone was donated by one-time promising tech company Vivato and installed on downtown roofs and poles. The former start-up designed the panels and repeaters that deliver the signal. It shut down its Spokane Valley office five years ago and no one now makes the same equipment.

The end result is continual breakdown of that HotZone equipment, said Garv Brakel, information services director for the city of Spokane.

Since the HotZone has never formally been managed by one group or business, the best the city can do is try to keep the aging equipment running, he said.

The telecommunications company that provided the Internet service at no cost, OneEighty Networks, is also out of the picture. OrbitCom, based in South Dakota, bought OneEighty in 2007.

In the past year OrbitCom has consolidated some of its services in the Midwest. They’ve also informed the city that they may not continue to provide the connection.

“Their problem is relatively simple,” Brakel said. “There’s a cost to providing the HotZone service but there’s no real market for outdoor wireless zones.”

In 2004 the idea of free wireless connections seemed ahead of its time. Economic development officials said it would inspire companies to relocate to Spokane because of the service.

Other metros, including Portland, tried versions of the same idea.

But since 2006 new technology has made wide-area wireless zones largely irrelevant, Brakel said.

Since 2004, Spokane and Spokane County police and emergency responders had full access to a protected portion of the HotZone that civilians couldn’t use.

But, Brakel noted, that need no longer exists. The city police department won a grant that provides discounted air cards for laptops used by cops on patrol.

“Why wouldn’t they switch to that cell signal for service?” Brakel asked. “It’s always on, and is fairly steady wherever they go.” The HotZone Wi-Fi signal, by contrast, is patchy due to aging equipment.

The boom in smartphones – like Blackberrys, Droids and iPhones – also means a free Wi-Fi service area is no longer relevant. Such devices instantly grab an Internet connection through a cell plan provider, like AT&T or Verizon.

“Plus you still have businesses around downtown offering free Wi-Fi,” Brakel said. Those include many coffee shops and hotels in the HotZone area.

Brakel said he’s told people at OrbitCom to hold off cutting the link until the city can survey use. “We don’t want to just shut it down. There may be people or a business … using it for their primary Web connection,” he said.

Mike Sloon, deputy director for the city’s technology services, said he’s found traffic logs showing the HotZone gets heaviest use with large community events.

Back in January, during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, HotZone traffic soared to a total volume of 4.5 megabytes (roughly 4.5 million bytes) of data use during that time, Sloon said.

The logs show that there is no constant use, however, Sloon said.

In March the traffic dipped to about 204 kilobytes (roughly 204,000 bytes) of data, he said.

By early April, the last date Sloon has records for, fell to a mere 48 kilobits of data.

Sloon said his most recent conversation with OrbitCom confirmed that the wireless signal is still there, but interrupted in areas due to hardware issues and interference.

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