The Google managers behind Mountain View's free WiFi say it's the most-used network of its kind in the country. And while Google has yet to make any money by giving away Internet access to local residents, the company appears poised to accommodate the network's future growth with new uses and new infrastructure.
A case in point: In partnership with Google, the city of Mountain View will soon begin testing Google WiFi in its police cars. Google says WiFi is a cheaper and faster alternative to existing cell phone connections in police cars (which would remain as a backup). The city is also testing the use of WiFi to read water meters remotely at the Pulte Homes development on Ferguson Drive.
On Wednesday, July 22, Google will hold a public meeting to hear suggestions from local residents on how to improve the network, which was used by 19,000 people over the last month in a city with 30,000 households. It will be held in Google's Havana Conference Room at 900 Alta Ave.
Last month the Mountain View Google WiFi network saw more use than ever. Following three years of somewhat steady growth, Google WiFi's "30 day active users" shot from about 16,000 to 19,000 over the month of June, according to a chart shared with the Voice. That jump followed a June 5 story in the Voice about the first three years of Google WiFi.
Though a team of Googlers spend their "20 percent time" working on the network, the man mostly responsible for it and its limited budget is technical staffer Karl Garcia. He is a self-described "WiFi evangelist" and founded Silicon Valley Unwired, a nonprofit recently awarded a contract to build a WiFi network in Milpitas.
A pile of heavy-duty WiFi radios sits near Garcia's desk in a former Alza building at 1950 Charleston Road, evidence of testing a network that has outgrown some of its earlier reliability and speed problems. Google WiFi "is such a great test bed," he says, "that WiFi radio companies love us."
Down the hall are two radios perched on the third floor windowsill, their antennae receiving and sending signals to a node mounted on a light pole on Charleston Road. The Google WiFi network now has more than 500 nodes installed throughout the city, up from 380 when the network launched in 2006. If you live within one or two blocks of a node, which are almost always on city-owned light poles, chances are you will have a signal strong enough to use Google WiFi in your home — at least with the help of a special WiFi modem.
Garcia said that in 2006, when the WiFi network was launched, it was in the back of everyone's mind at Google that it would somehow make some money from the new service. Since then it has become apparent that this won't be the case. But the free service, he said, is part of Google's "social contract" — a way for the company to give back to its home town.
Creatures of habit
Like clockwork, Garcia says, on every weekday except Friday, the WiFi user count spikes between 5:50 and 6:05 p.m., possibly due to people checking e-mail after work. It is a pattern that has "been consistent for months," he said.
"You can come up with a lot of theories" as to why, "but who knows?" One thing is clear to Garcia, however: "We are such creatures of habit." He noted that bandwidth use peaks at midnight on weekdays and user count peaks at 3 p.m. on weekends.
A look at Garcia's many charts and graphs of WiFi usage reveals several trends. A "heat" graph shows which nodes are used the most throughout the day. Nodes along western El Camino Real, the downtown train station and the Google campus saw the most users during peak hours, according to one heat graph. "It's important for us to visualize this stuff," he said.
There was a jump in the network's use when the iPhone was released last year. Google has been able to track about 4,000 unique iPhone users now on the network over the last 30 days. Garcia says the most popular places to use an iPhone are Lozano's Car Wash and Mountain View High School.
The bay station
Mounted atop downtown's tallest building at 444 Castro Street is a device that can broadcast over two miles and carries nearly half of all Google WiFi traffic. It's called a "bay station," and Google has installed three of the devices in Mountain View as the foundation of its WiFi network. The other two are at Google headquarters and St. Francis High School, but neither is used as heavily as the one on Castro.
The network hierarchy goes like this: The three bay stations communicate with 68 "gateways," which in turn form clusters by communicating with about a half dozen nodes.
"If we were to do this again we would probably have four bay stations," Garcia said. "We didn't anticipate how much traffic we would have. We're starting to see capacity issues. The amount of data we push on this network is huge."
Garcia said the Google WiFi network carries about 500 gigabytes of data every day, which is "orders of magnitude larger" than the WiFi network in St. Cloud, Minn., which beat Google by a month in the race to be first network of its kind. That network pushes about 500 megabytes.
So while Mountain View's WiFi wasn't quite the first, it's definitely been the most successful, Garcia says.
Because of all the network traffic, there have been talks with the city about possibly adding a fourth bay station on the radio monopole at the police station.
A few months ago, when the Voice asked readers about their experiences using Google WiFi, the feedback was mixed. Many said they appreciated the network but were frustrated by slow or dropped connections.
Often times, Garcia said, problems like those are due to the laptops and other devices which, in order to preserve battery life, don't have a strong enough signal to communicate back to the node, and thus require a special modem to help.
Google addresses users' technical problems through an online forum at wifi.google.com. Those who have a unique technical problem, and are persistent, will eventually get the attention of the people who run the network. Google says it is not economically feasible to provide traditional technical support for users and that it could even hinder a healthy WiFi community from developing on its own.
But the network can have its own problems. One common problem occurs when a light pole is turned off during construction work, explained Andrew Gold, founder of I-Net Solutions.
Google no longer uses its own employees to monitor and manage the network on a daily basis. Instead it contracts with I-Net Solutions, which is based at NASA Ames. The company employs a team of three technicians who, among other things, drive a pickup truck around the city equipped with an antenna to determine whether an area is getting good WiFi coverage.
Power to light poles was something people took for granted before WiFi, Gold said. Few may realize that their free Internet access is subject to a construction worker or government employee flipping a switch.
Other times the problem originates with Google itself. Once in a while the status of the servers used to control network log-ins is lost in the shuffle by the company, which maintains thousands of servers.
Garcia and Gold are also aware that there are some areas of the city that receive no coverage, like the large chunk of downtown bordered by Castro Street, Church Street, Calderon Avenue and Villa Street. The reason: PG&E owns the light poles there, and wanted a "ridiculous" amount of money to let Google put WiFi nodes on them. (The city charges Google about $36 a year for each light pole.)
Without a city-owned light pole and its electricity, mounting a WiFi node in a high and unobstructed place — required for a good signal — can become expensive due the complexity of getting electricity to the WiFi radio and working with a private property owner. It's the difference between spending several hundred dollars and several thousand per node, Garcia said.
Despite the difficulty, there are over 10 nodes on private property in the city, Garcia said, several of which are in the Whisman Station neighborhood.
Garcia says that in some newer housing communities, the light poles are owned by the local homeowners association. The Voice has received complaints that The Crossings, a housing community near San Antonio Road and Central Expressway, has never had WiFi service. But Garcia said Google has never been asked by the homeowners association there to provide WiFi. If it ever does ask, and agrees to the necessary stipulations to use its light poles, Garcia said he's already thought about where three or four nodes would go and how they might affect his budget.
"Our goal is to cover the city," Garcia said. "If we find an area with a hole, we're happy to fix that."
What: Google is hosting a public meeting to hear suggestions from Mountain View residents on how to improve its free WiFi network
When: Wednesday, July 22, 7 p.m.
Where: Google's Havana Conference Room, 900 Alta Ave.
Info: For more information on Google WiFi, visit wifi.google.com