The challenges ahead for Portland's Wi-Fi "cloud"

 That's some picknickers in Portland's Washington Park. You sometimes can find me there.

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That's some picknickers in Portland's Washington Park. You sometimes can find me there. And if this Wi-Fi "cloud" that California-based Wi-Fi provider MetroFi  will build in Portland actually comes to efficient fruition, you may find me Wi-Fi'ing from there as well. Maybe even blogging.

So it follows that as both a Wi-Fi user and a resident of Portland, Oregon, I am naturally pleased as punch that MetroFi has been selected to build a Wi-Fi "cloud" here.

But at least in this area, the challenges may be more daunting than some people believe.

This is a hilly city with plenty of physical and artificial points of interference for wireless signals.

MetroFi says they will tackle this issue by putting up some 2,000 antennas on city-owned buildings and light poles, as well as structures owned by Portland General Electric, the main electrical utility serving our municipality of 540,000 citizens.

Sounds easy, but it is not. Here's why I say this:

*When I think of 2,000 antennas, I think of 2,000 possible points of failure for a technology that hasn't exactly been perfected. Heck, ask any Portlander about dead cell zones.

*Parts of our city are very densely populated. In large growth areas, 20-story condos are sprouting like weeds. What's this going to do for Wi-Fi signals?  

*Our city is crawling with those folks who are in to the fineries of urban architecture as well as people who reflexively don't like any structure if it wasn't built by nature's hand. I predict neighborhood battles for some of these structures, especially for those antennas built on city land.

*Just this week, Portland General Electric finalized its conversion from an Enron-owned utility to one that is once again being traded as a public company. Despite this transition, they are widely seen by many as especially profit-driven. Heck, just earlier this week, they asked for a rate hike. So forgive me if I sound skeptical but I do not envision PGE reflexively playing "nice," and just let MetroFi build where they want.

*Then there is the matter of Portland city government itself. We don't do infrastructure smoothly. We're trying to get a tram built between our South Waterfront District and a large hill west of downtown that holds a major medical center. Costs were originally projected as $15 million, but now have ballooned to $55 million. Funding to bridge this gap finally now appears to be secured, but the path to where we are now has proven elusive and contentious.

*Portland city government - and especially one City Councillor with a reflexive (if not totally undeserved) skepticism of any initiative with even a small amount of private sector involvement- already has the reputation of not being extraordinarily cordial to private industry. Since private industry's support will be necessary in this effort, the road ahead isn't going to be smooth.

*And yes, what about WiMax initiatives? Will they compete for public support? 

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