Bellevue, Washington free Wi-Fi hotzone: almost 50 percent iPhone, iPod Touch users

The city of Bellevue, Washington has had a Wi-Fi hotzone with free access in its central business district since 2007. The city owns the network, but it is managed by HarborLink, an ISP based in Dayton, Ohio. The network uses 28 Cisco 802.11b/g wireless mesh access points and covers an area of 0.66 square miles (1.71 square kilomeers). David Kerr, IT manager of Bellevue, has provided the following statistics:

  • March 2007 (launch): 104 unique users (131 sessions) sending and receiving 4.66 gigabytes
  • December 2009: 2,185 unique users (5,380 sessions) sending and receiving 135.69 gigabytes

Even more surprising is the percentage of iPhone and iPod Touch users on the network: 45.79 percent as of December 2009.

Bellevue, Washington is a suburb of Seattle; it has an population of approximately 123,000. Many people in Bellevue work for Microsoft and other tech companies.

Q&A with David Kerr, Bellevue IT manager

When did you launch the Bellevue Wi-Fi network? Did you put it out to bid?

We launched the network in 2007 but we did not solicit bids. The city can purchase off master state contracts which fulfill public procurement regulations. The city chose Cisco and Netversant (a systems integrator).

What is the backhaul for the network?

The backhaul for the wireless network is the city-owned fiber.

Does the city run the network?

No. The city uses a wireless ISP called HarborLink, which is based in Dayton, OH.

How did you choose HarborLink?

The city learned about HarborLink via the cable associations. The city has used Cisco technology in the past; Cisco brought HarborLink to the city.

Does the city own a utility? Will it deploy wireless meters?

Yes, the city owns the water utility and it is considering wireless meters.

What is the cost of deploying the downtown Wi-Fi hotzone?

The city spent between $250,00 and $280,000 on hardware and installation.

How is HarborLink supporting free Wi-Fi access?

The city does not pay HarborLink. They support the network via advertising. HarborLink has hundreds of wireless hotspots in many states. However, the city is responsible for replacing and repairing the Cisco wireless equipment used in the network.

Why is the city providing free Wi-Fi?

The city has a young, techie population who expect wireless connectivity everywhere. They are heavy users of smartphones (almost 50 percent of users connect with an iPhone or iPod Touch). Providing free Wi-Fi is a public service that the city offers to the tech community.

Are you using the network for municipal applications?

Not yet.

Did the city apply for a BTOP grant?

Yes, the city applied for Round 2 BTOP grant, primarily to deploy a fiber network. We want to extend the regional fiber network down south 40 miles, build a backbone, and hook up the South Valley cities. We have a private-public partnership with Trilogy Partners (which funds telecom proposals); HarborLink will act as the ISP. We have requested $11 million with matching funds of $7.8 million.

What are the city’s future plans?

We would like to see multiple wireless ISPs on the network. Initially we planned to have one SSID (branded as city of Bellevue network). People can see who are the ISPs offering service on the network and choose the one they want to use. We could not find the right technology to do this three years ago so we put it on hold.

Our plan is to go out late this year or early 2011 with an RFP and solicit multiple providers and have run them on their own SSIDs. We want to slowly expand the network beyond the business district through a combination of grants and partnerships with private companies.