Mountain View Voice

Opinion - June 12, 2009

Give Google credit for free WiFi

For the lucky users who can receive Google's free WiFi in Mountain View, the service is a big hit, more than worth the trouble it takes to link up. In some locations, the WiFi is just as fast as costly competitors, although in other places it can be slow or nonexistent.

And then there are the stories from frustrated residents who simply can't log on, or who know that trees or some other impediment blocks their WiFi service.

All in all, a recent Voice survey of Google WiFi users found a mixed bag of results, with some happy customers and others who simply gave up or who put up with service that sometimes is as slow as dial-up.

In response to a Town Square query, the Voice received a bundle of comments that include some satisfied customers, and others who say the network is scarce or nonexistent in neighborhoods like the Crossings. In general, the service gets high marks from laptop users who are logging on near a node, but homeowners trying to access the site, even those using a $100 window antenna, often cannot log on.

For savvy techies, it is no surprise that what some call "outside-in" WiFi produces spotty service. That quality has been known for a long time. Trees do get in the way of the signal, and if you're trying to log on from deep inside a building, good luck.

Despite this, we have to commend Google for attempting such an ambitious project: to launch a free Internet service that is supposed to cover the entire 12 square miles of the city. Back in 2006, the company wanted to test the WiFi waters and ultimately decided to do it in Mountain View, their home base. At the outset, and even today, Google gets credit for making an honest effort, and for paying the city $36 a year in rent for each node that sits on a city-owned utility pole — a total of $18,000 a year.

Similar efforts to link up other cities, including San Francisco, fell apart when entrepreneurs realized how much a viable system would cost to install and the difficulty of turning a profit in the process. Google is virtually alone among the early entrants to follow through and actually build a workable free system.

Google launched the network with 380 nodes on city-owned poles, and built it up from there. Currently there are 500 access points, a roughly 25 percent increase over a three-year period. The expansion has helped, but still leaves many users grumbling about slow or nonexistent service, a problem that Google has not publicly said it is trying to correct.

But even with WiFi's shortcomings, Google deserves a pat on the back and the encouragement to continue the service as long as the company is willing. Technology engineers know that an external node system will never be able to cover 100 percent of the city. But if you are out of the loop, it may be possible to convince Google to install a node nearby and satisfy your need for inexpensive WiFi.

Google WiFi in Mountain View continues to attract a fair number of users, and we guess that acceptance will continue — at least until everyone can get online with their cell phone for cheap. That day is coming, and only then will Google's network be in jeopardy.


Posted by RB, a resident of Sylvan Park
on Aug 11, 2009 at 3:09 pm

I am a new user in Sylvan Park. I use a Engenious EOC-2610 Wireless Client to access the Google Wifi node. The unit is inside the house, and all my internet devices work under that router. I typically get between 1 and 3mbs down (avg 1.5) and between 0.5 to 1.5 mbs up (avg 1.0)

I am very satisfied with what I am getting.

Thanks Google.

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