Ponca City, Oklahoma’s free citywide Wi-Fi service supported by city-owned fiber broadband

In 2008, I posted an article about Ponca City, Oklahoma’s wireless automated meter reading (AMR) project: outdoor wireless nodes that collect data from residents’ wireless water and electric meters, then transmit the data via the city-owned fiber back to the water and electric utilities. The wireless nodes used for the AMR project are NOT made by Tropos, as had been reported. The Tropos nodes are NOT used as backhaul for the AMR project, as is the case in some cities, because Ponca City uses its fiber network as the backhaul for the AMR project.

The city acquired the Tropos wireless equipment (which is now used for the citywide Wi-Fi network) initially for the police and fire departments. The city determined they were powerful enough to use for citywide Wi-Fi service as well as for municipal use, not just by the police and fire departments but for other departments as well.

Recently, I spoke to Craige Baird, Technical Services Director of Ponca City and Craig Stephenson, City Manager, about the OTHER network in Ponca City: the Wi-Fi network that offers free Wi-Fi to residents. Here is a summary of the interview.

Q&A with Craige Baird, Technical Services Director of Ponca City, Oklahoma

How does Ponca City cover the cost of providing free citywide Wi-Fi to its residents?

Ponca City owns a fiber network and sells fiber broadband service to large enterprises (e.g. casinos, hospitals, oil and gas firms, drill bit manufacturing companies, etc.). The city receives about $15,000 per month from selling fiber broadband access. The revenues from the sale of fiber broadband service supports the free citywide Wi-Fi service. The free Wi-Fi service does not cost the city much money because it owns the fiber backhaul and does not offer any tech support.

What download and upload speeds can residents expect from the citywide Wi-Fi network?

People can expect 7 mbps (downstream and upstream), but between 500 – 600 users get about 12 Mbps (up and down). The city adds between 100-200 users  every 2 to 3 weeks.

From where do most people gain access to the Wi-Fi network?

We think most people gain access to the city’s Wi-Fi network from their homes although what surprises us is we know of only 1200 Pepwave repeaters connecting to the network even though there are 5700- 5800 users. It could be that people access the network outdoors, too. (Note: Pepwave makes repeaters that enhance the outdoor Wi-Fi signal and “brings” it indoors).

Since the city offers no tech support, how do people get information about the network? What happens if they have problems?

Users are not getting tech support, but they can call a hotline. They can also send questions via the website. But we do not help people connect their computer to the network or help them figure out how to set up wireless access.

Is it burdensome to have the free users? When will it start costing a lot of money?

It’s as easy to support 5800 as 5 users because the network is already up and the fiber backhaul is quite robust. And we don’t offer tech support.

What outdoor wireless equipment are you using?

We are using wireless equipment from Tropos.

How many square miles does the Wi-Fi network cover?

Free Wi-Fi coverage is officially 60 sq miles (on paper), but we can extend it easily by adding more wireless gateways on towers.

Is Ponca City interested in being part of the Google fiber experiment?

Yes, definitely.

Q&A with Craig Stephenson, City Manager

How is the wireless AMR project related to the free Wi-Fi service?

The citywide Wi-Fi network is totally separate from the wireless AMR project. Honeywell completed the AMR project one year before the city began offering free Wi-Fi.

What feedback have you received from residents about their new wireless meters?

Many residents are happy with the new meters because there are no more meter readers running around to their homes, accidentally letting the dogs out, for instance. The electricity and water bills are also more accurate now. Many people who live in Ponca City are affluent retirees who worked in the oil and gas industry. A large number of residents work from home. They are tech savvy and demand a good tech infrastructure. The city owns the water and electric utilities. Ponca is the first in Oklahoma to install both wireless water and electric meters.

NOTE: Ponca City has a population of 26,000 (source: Ponca City website).