[Chtechcomm] When Pigs Wi-Fi

Brian Russell brussell at ibiblio.org
Sun Aug 7 11:28:10 EDT 2005

The New York Times


August 7, 2005

When Pigs Wi-Fi
=============By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF


This is cowboy country, where the rodeo is coming to town, the high
school's "kiss the pig" contest involves a genuine hog, and life seems
about as high-tech as the local calf-dressing competition, when teams
race to wrestle protesting calves into T-shirts.

But Hermiston is actually a global leader of our Internet future. Today,
this chunk of arid farm country appears to be the largest Wi-Fi hot spot
in the world, with wireless high-speed Internet access available free for
some 600 square miles. Most of that is in eastern Oregon, with some just
across the border in southern Washington.

Driving along the road here, I used my laptop to get e-mail and download
video - and you can do that while cruising at 70 miles per hour, mile
after mile after mile, at a transmission speed several times as fast as a
T-1 line. (Note: it's preferable to do this with someone else driving.)

This kind of network is the wave of the future, and eastern Oregon shows
that it's technically and financially feasible. New York and other
leading cities should be embarrassed that Morrow and Umatilla Counties in
eastern Oregon are far ahead of them in providing high-speed Internet
coverage to residents, schools and law enforcement officers - even though
all of Morrow County doesn't even have a single traffic light.

The big cities should take note, said Kim Puzey, the general manager of
the Port of Umatilla on the Columbia River here. "We'd like people to
say, 'If they can do it out in the boondocks with a small population,
that model can be applied to highly complex areas,' " he said.

Mr. Puzey, who says wireless broadband is central to the port's
operations, argues persuasively that broadband is just the next step in
expanding the national infrastructure, comparable to the transcontinental
railroad, the national highway system and rural electrification.

Indeed, we need to envision broadband Internet access as just another
utility, like electricity or water. Often the best way to provide that
will be to blanket a region with Wi-Fi coverage to create wireless
computer networks, rather than running D.S.L., cable or fiber-optic lines
to every home.

So if the first step was to get Americans wired, the next step is to make
them wireless.

Two pioneers in that process are Portland, Ore., and Philadelphia, which
are both moving toward citywide Wi-Fi Internet access. Consumers will
still have to pay for broadband, but only about half as much as they do

Still, Portland and Philadelphia won't have their systems in place until
next year. Meanwhile, the system in eastern Oregon covers a larger
geographic area, is free for consumers and has been up and running for
more than a year and a half.

One reason it sprang up here is that a nearby Army depot contains
chemical weapons, so there is special concern about what would happen if
a cloud of nerve gas escaped from the depot. That fear helped provide a
pot of federal money to underwrite safety systems.

Usually, the police and fire agencies communicate just by radio, but
Hermiston decided to go with a public-private partnership that
established a Wi-Fi network. The police chief, Dan Coulombe, showed me
the wireless computers that all police officers now carry. They can
download data and receive images from video monitors - and, if nerve gas
ever escaped, display the cloud's direction and speed.

Fingerprint readers are now being added to these portable devices so a
police officer can almost instantly run a person's fingerprint through a
multistate database. And if there's a report of a burglary, the police
rushing to the scene can download floor plans of the building, live
images from video monitors and information about the alarm system.

The wizard behind the system is Fred Ziari, an Iranian immigrant and
Wi-Fi pioneer who runs a high-tech company in Hermiston and Portland, EZ
Wireless. Mr. Ziari contracted with the local authorities to provide the
Wi-Fi service, which lets consumers piggyback for nothing.

Hermiston is already starting to introduce WiMax, the next generation of
technology after Wi-Fi, offering much higher speeds and greater range.

Other American towns need to follow Hermiston, not necessarily in holding
"kiss the pig" contests, but in ensuring broadband Internet access as
reliably as they do water or electricity. The fact is, unless you're a
cowboy here in eastern Oregon, you're behind the times.

E-mail: nicholas at nytimes.com

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