June 15, 2013 in Business

HotZone’s free Wi-Fi to fold

City’s 2004 venture bold at the time, but technology, users leave it behind
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Looking back

The Spokane HotZone covered about 100 square blocks in the city’s downtown when it made its debut in 2004.

The HotZone, downtown Spokane’s pioneering free wireless Internet service, is headed for the dustbin.

Like other technology ventures, it fell victim to fast-shifting public preferences and a dynamic marketplace, said Steve Simmons, a longtime Eastern Washington University computer science professor.

Launched in 2004 by the city of Spokane, the system now has few users and relies on outdated equipment that would be too expensive to replace, city officials said.

At one time the Spokane HotZone covered about 100 square blocks in the city’s core; it was one of the largest such projects in the nation when it launched.

Simmons said the HotZone was a bold experiment and an early example of free public Wi-Fi. “The market came along and wireless phone companies gave people plenty of superfast 4G speeds, and consumers were glad to pay for it,” Simmons said.

“So, for a while, the HotZone was a great idea. It had some good moments, like during Hoopfest,” he said.

Simmons agreed with the city in concluding there’s no reason to continue a project that’s become obsolete.

While the city intends to close down the service, the private company that provides the Internet feed for the HotZone will continue some form of paid or free wireless service in parts of downtown.

Jim Wilson, CEO of Liberty Lake-based Ptera Wireless, said the company plans to upgrade its own downtown wireless equipment and beam Wi-Fi signals into Riverfront Park and the nearby Riverpoint campus.

The city’s goal in creating the HotZone was to encourage businesses to locate downtown and to appeal to tech-savvy shoppers and visitors.

Vivato, a Liberty Lake technology startup, donated the main components for the HotZone. Despite a promising start, the company closed its doors in 2005.

Some of the HotZone’s Wi-Fi antennas have failed in recent years, said Michael Sloon, Spokane’s information technology manager. Replacing just one of the main antennas in the heart of downtown would cost around $10,000.

Jan Quintrall, Spokane’s director of business and development services, said the city can’t justify spending the money needed to upgrade that equipment.

“It’s a different world now than it was in 2004,” Quintrall said. “Everyone has cellphones. Plus, does the city want to be in the business of competing with private wireless providers?”

Sloon said traffic logs show roughly 50 people use the free service each week. “Typically, it’s the same people every week,” he said.

At one point, OrbitCom, the previous company providing broadband service for the HotZone, planned to require people logged on for more than an hour to pay for Wi-Fi. But that plan never took shape.

Ptera took over providing Web connectivity from OrbitCom in 2010.

Sloon estimated the shutdown will take about two months. The city won’t turn off the equipment until he coordinates with Ptera to ensure no HotZone panels are needed by that company for its own downtown customers.

When the city launched the HotZone it created a separate, free wireless service for police and fire department use. But the need for city crews to use the HotZone ended when the city purchased a separate system for the two departments.

Sloon also noted the HotZone doesn’t compare in bandwidth to the broadband speeds now available from the main wireless carriers, like AT&T or Verizon. “The HotZone provides less than one gigabit,” and that’s far slower than what many users get on their tablets and smartphones, he said.

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