Kleier manages the ambitious "Unwire Portland" project, which aims to offer free wireless Internet access to 95 percent of the city by mid-2008.
The network went live in December for a "proof of concept" run in the downtown, close-in east side and Lloyd District areas, or about 5 percent of Portland. Even with only 5 percent coverage, Kleier says Portland is already at the national forefront of free municipal wi-fi service.
An independent report on the network is expected in April and the verdict from early users is that the network seems to work well outdoors. However, to get free wi-fi indoors, most users must buy an additional "signal booster," a $50-$125 contraption (see photo) oddly reminiscent of a George Foreman grill. That catch has confused and frustrated some early network users who believed free really meant free.
Kleier says PDX Web surfers should be patient with MetroFi, a 4-year-old Mountain View, Calif.,-based startup that's building the network at no cost to Portland. WW got an update last week from Kleier, a $76,000-a-year city employee, on the wide world of wi-fi in Portland.
WW: How are people using the network so far?
Logan Kleier: Back in December, on average, there were 300 users a day. In March, there's close to 600 users a day.
Didn't the language in the city's original proposal call for a wireless network that didn't require extra "signal boosters"?
The city originally said we would like to have a certain degree of wi-fi signal available...without a signal booster. But that's not saying this is what we'd require. MetroFi's never been misleading. There are pretty prescribed power limits on the equipment. You can't just crank it up to whatever you want in the hopes of getting the signal deep into a building.
What kinds of complaints does your office get about the service?
People call and say, "I see the access point, but it doesn't work." But I've walked through this with a number of people and asked them where they live. And I tell them that while there's over 500 access points in Portland, only about 70 of them are turned on right now. And usually [that person] happens to be by one of the access points that isn't turned on. And it won't be turned on until May.
MetroFi's model is similar to NetZero's in the '90s: to sell people on free, ad-supported Internet. But NetZero wasn't sustainable, and now it charges a monthly fee. Could the same thing happen to MetroFi?
Sure. People always draw the same NetZero analogy. One of the challenges of NetZero was that you couldn't get people to stay long enough on dial-up to make it worth their while. But you can get people to stay much longer on high-speed because they can actually get to the information they need without sitting there and getting frustrated. People are staying on MetroFi's network in Portland for over 90 minutes a day.
One of Unwire Portland's goals is to expand free Internet access to poorer neighborhoods. Does paying for a signal booster undermine that?
It's not a major concern. There are a couple of reasons why people don't have high-speed Internet access...but the issue at the forefront as a deterrent is the monthly cost—$25 times 12 is $300. So the issue of whether it's a $50 or $80 signal booster is not the core reason why people don't have high-speed Internet access at home.
Any concern at this point in choosing a start-up with no proven track record?
MetroFi has a more significant track record than any of the other companies that applied. They've been in business much longer, and [have been] doing municipal networks for a significant amount of time. No one else had that experience. When people ask, "Are you sure MetroFi's gonna work? Are you really sure?" The answer I give is, "Am I 100 percent sure? Of course not." But the point isn't whether there's risk, the point for the city is how they manage the risk. Did the city put taxpayer dollars on the line to sign this? And the answer was no.