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Initial users of Portland’s new MetroFi network, launched last week, are reporting a variety of glitches and frustrations. MetroFi is stressing the “free” approach over the $19.95/month ad-free service and has gathered Microsoft, Boyd’s Coffee, KPTV Fox 12, and Windermere Cronin & Caplan Reality as initial sponsors. Happily, bypassing the ads is surprisingly simple, although opinions vary on how many will attempt to do that.

It’s probably too early to make any definitive judgements on the initial free advertising supported service, but The Oregonian reported a variety of service issues:

Though connections are consistently strong and fast from my fourth-floor desk in The Oregonian’s building on Southwest Broadway, results elsewhere have been a little uneven. Some connections were erratic, even within a few dozen feet of a Wi-Fi antenna, though performance seemed to improve as the week went on. I heard from about a dozen people last week offering their first impressions of the network. Most are unhappy, based largely on their inability to connect. So I performed my own tests, putting the network through the same paces I did in California last summer.

I invited Michael Weinberg, a volunteer with the Personal Telco Project, to join me Wednesday as I tested the network around Portland. Personal Telco has dozens of its own Wi-Fi networks in coffee shops, bars and parks around the city, and the nonprofit group helped inspire Portland’s new network.

When Weinberg and I signed onto the network downtown, it was almost as fast as my office connection. He was even finding signals while we drove toward the Morrison Bridge.

Once in Southeast Portland, though, our luck ran out. While our computers were generally able to “see” MetroFi’s antennas, they weren’t able to access the Internet. We tried signing on at four different locations — three times within site of a MetroFi antenna on a streetlight or traffic signal. Neither of us was able to access the network, and Weinberg said Thursday that access remained spotty on his computer downtown, and unavailable near an antenna outside his Southeast Portland home.

“I think it’s a combination of usage and there may be a hardware issue,” Weinberg said, speculating about the cause of the trouble. He said MetroFi’s network might not be robust enough to handle higher levels of traffic as users sign on.

Not so, said Poulicakos, the MetroFi vice president. She said MetroFi performed extensive tests on the network to ensure it would be able to handle Portland’s Web traffic. Poulicakos said MetroFi’s data showed hundreds of people using the network Wednesday, apparently without trouble, and that technicians have been able to sign on in some of the same places where Weinberg and I failed.

DailyWireless asked Steven Schroedl, who provides Wi-Fi services for IEEE meetings around the world, to give his impressions of MetroFi’s service. Schroedl is founder of VeriLAN, and was a competitor to MetroFi, for the Unwired Portland project. Here’s his accessment of MetroFi’s current service:

Here are my views from my user experience: First it is important for me to say that I want to see MetroFi succeed, but I have concerns on the long term feasibility of the free business plan. But let me start from what happened on the official launch day.

1) MetroFi is broadcasting multiple BSSID; “MetroFi” Free and “MetroFi Premium”. This is a good start for providing service so people can know they can pay and get higher QOS. I would recommend that any BSSID not use a space between words, some of the vintage OS that people still us would have difficulties. A single BSSID of “MetroFi” that has a simple login for paid customers and free would be easier as the back end AAA can do the job of QOS.

I do want to know if other ISP can sell on the network, I have asked this in the past, but no calls have been returned with information on this.

2) I am hearing that the network is being done with static route for backhaul. If this is correct I hope MetroFi continues to work on getting the mesh architecture to come online. Mesh would allow for self healing of the network from an outage and redirect network traffic as needed.

3) I drove the network and saw a few BSSID of “SkyPilotDualBand”, this is the default BSSID form the hardware from the box. This is not a big deal as it should not be expected that the official launch of a 70ish node network just turns on and works 100%.

Other problems that I saw as I tried to use the network were not getting DHCP, or after getting an IP address that the gateway must have been not passing packets. I did get a captive portal after 3 PM from an AP up by Jake’s in the Governor hotel.

4) The current network (12/5/06) layout that many more nodes will be needed in the coverage area as the user count grows. When you design a multi-hop mesh or static network, even if it uses a private radio for the backhaul, it is all about the the last inch AP serving the end user.

Example: Single 802.11B/G AP serving end clients, if I am 10 feet away from the AP with a 802.11g radio and have a connection rate of greater than 12Mb and another user is 450 feet away from the same AP with a 802.11b client radio and they are getting a 2Mb connection rate. The 802.11b user now has set the maximum data rate for the radio to 2Mb for all users who will use this AP.

I would recommend MetroFi and the city of Portland talk about the forward thinking wireless network having 802.11b data rates be set to a minimum of 5.5Mb association rate, or not allowing 802.11b clients as they bring down the data rate to an horrible user experience.

5) I wonder what the survivability of MetroFi is with ClearWire coming to Portland in the near future. MetroFi could say “hey, we are free”, but lets look back at other companies that were free “NetZero” was free and now they charge $9.95. MetroFi against ClearWire is not a good bet. ClearWire has over 900 Million in the bank.

I (Sam Churchill) haven’t used it extensively enough to draw any conclusions, but I think it’s important to keep expectations realistic. It’s a WiFi network. An access point two blocks away is unlikely to penetrate a residence unless you can see it though a window. A $50 client with a $35 antenna will probably be required at a minimum. Then you’ll be sharing a node with a hundred others.

MetroFi’s free WiFi service will “work” for some. For others it won’t. It’s not a panacea for universal service — but it’s a step in the right direction. I’ll give MetroFi (and Unwired Portland) the benefit of a doubt.

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