Testing service will check on city Wi-Fi

A consulting company for municipal broadband will now come in after wireless networks are built and test them, block by block.

Uptown Services LLC has quietly launched an independent testing service to check on the performance of Wi-Fi networks. The Boulder, Colorado, company, which works with cities on all types of municipal networks, is already in discussions with one city for testing, according to Neil Shaw, a principal at Uptown.

Numerous cities around the world, and some rural areas, are building or exploring wireless networks that can deliver fast Internet access everywhere. Even when they don't pay to build the networks, municipalities invest political capital in the promise of connectivity everywhere. Uptown is offering to help them figure out if the network delivers on that promise.

The service is becoming available as municipal wireless is projected to grow quickly over the next few years. News and research company Muniwireless.com on Monday estimated that spending on the networks will exceed US$235 million this year and reach $460 million in 2007. In 2005, spending on municipal wireless networks was just under $117 million, the company said.

Using a notebook PC with GPS (Global Positioning System) and custom software, Uptown can gather performance data every 100 feet across the advertised service area, Shaw said. Parameters include coverage, data throughput, delay, packet loss and loss of entire files. Testing should take one to five days, depending on the size of the area, and add only a minimal cost to the project, Shaw said.

Uptown will measure the factors against specific metrics, which can include the ability to support voice. A code using red, yellow and green dots on a map indicates the quality of service in each location. Indoor coverage can be estimated. The company will also show how the network stacks up against others, Shaw said, comparing the service to J.D. Power and Associates customer satisfaction ratings.

Uptown has already tested three networks and found widely varying performance, Shaw said.

Municipal wireless networks come under such a spotlight that less than promised performance won't slip by, said Esme Vos, founder of Muniwireless.com.

"You'd better expect people to call you on it," Vos said.

However, it's hard to guarantee anything on a Wi-Fi network, which runs on unlicensed spectrum and has to accept interference, said Gartner Inc. analyst Ken Dulaney. He's not sure a city should pay for tests. Rather, they should make it easy to complain.

"People's complaints are probably your most cost-effective way of doing it," Dulaney said.

Third-party testing should be available, either as a matter of course or in case of a dispute between the government and the network builder or provider, said Ken Fellman, who gives legal advice to cities building municipal networks and is mayor of Arvada, Colorado, which is getting ready to propose a wireless system with neighboring cities.

"Any city that's involved in doing this ... (needs) to have some mechanism to ensure that those service levels are being met," Fellman said.

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