Mountain View Voice

News - July 17, 2009

Google prepares to spiff up city WiFi

Public invited to July 22 meeting to learn more about unique wireless service

by Daniel DeBolt

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.

Technical challenges

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.

Dark spots

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."

INFORMATION:

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

Comments

Posted by T-BONE, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 16, 2009 at 3:43 pm

I LIVE LESS THAT 1.5 MILES FROM GOOGLE AND NEVER BEEN ABLE TO CONNECT TO THERE WIFI.


Posted by Rombo, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 16, 2009 at 6:57 pm

If Mountain View cops have to depend on Google Wifi than you can kiss your ass goodby!


Posted by Bob, a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jul 16, 2009 at 7:36 pm

Fry's is stocking a Buffalo device, to access Google wifi, about $80.

I have not this, but a funky Compaq with g and n, from an Airlink 300 port card.

Dual n cards are enough, but the Buffalo should work, or what?

When MVPD or any other wonky warriors start letting the accountants at their riot, we might see restored jurisdictions, not before.

The City Attorney and several councilmembers seem to have suppressed how the State was doomed to flop, and suppressed my testimony, since 2001, for revision of the yet enacted California State Department of Water Services Power Contracts, in bad faith, passing costs, globally.

And so, bailouts and illegally interested stimuli prevailed, all the way through the campaign, and thereafter! Guess why MTV's Jackass?

It's BACK, like STAR TREK, all about President Obama, just like Newman on Seinfeld is all about Councilmember Tom Means being an SJSU Professor of Econ who is shagging us, here in the View, all night!

What will Barry do for infrastructure, pray?


Posted by Bob, a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jul 16, 2009 at 7:45 pm

And before I forget, you should get AVG anti-virus FREE, Iobit dual care FREE, and run their updates, AFTER you start up Google Chrome, which gets to Google WiFi before most IE crashers can get to Windows Update.

You still get to keep IE, or you cannot run modern update to Windows.

If you have Firefox on Windows, you may be a mess.

So if you run Mozilla, have their OS working, and their Firefox tethered to keep cookies out, since you have to run AVG at it, day after day, to get Mo-cookies out of IE and Google and preferences, and then they cook back, in Firefox.

So whatever browser they have wants to be on Sun's OS, REALLY, or you get to eat Adimints. Good luck getting online and signed in, if Mo-cookies eat your mo-chine.


Posted by SonicPony, a resident of North Whisman
on Jul 16, 2009 at 7:46 pm



The story states that most of the Old MV area is not covered due to PG&E owning the the light poles there and wanting an excessive amount of money for Google to install their equipment on PG&E's poles... and your ability to use the service depends on how close you are to a light pole mounted access point in your neighborhood, not how close you are to Google headquarters


That being said, I agree with Rombo that in it's current state, If MVPD were to use this, you just might have to kiss your donkey goodbye! Keep the cell phones charged!


Posted by MV surfer, a resident of Castro City
on Jul 17, 2009 at 12:45 am

Oh, the MVPD will find the Google wifi works just great - until they try to use it between buildings, or in a parking garage, or near the edge of town... or anywhere except the on sidewalk near a light-pole node.

And when the google servers get overloaded, good luck making your calls.

Better hang onto the cellphones for now, and maybe keep the old 2-way radios for back-up!


Posted by Mtn View resident, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 17, 2009 at 8:40 am

Dear Google, I for one, am extremely grateful to have had free WiFi the past several years. I am on the very border of the dark zone and occasionally cannot connect, but for the most part have been able to log on.
Thank you for bringing this to the community.


Posted by SP Phil, a resident of Shoreline West
on Jul 17, 2009 at 2:29 pm

For the first couple of years I was unable to pull in the Google signal because the nearest City-owned light pole is a couple of blocks from my home. Google declined my offers to install a community node on my roof. Eventually I paid about $400 to ExpressNets to install an antenna on my second-story roof, which is connected by cable to a Ruckus router inside my home, and I'm getting good coverage throughout my home.

Thanks, Google and ExpressNets. Goodbye, Comcast internet bill.


Posted by NW Resident, a resident of North Whisman
on Jul 17, 2009 at 4:00 pm

My understanding is that MVPD would only use WiFi for the data terminals in their patrol cars, since those terminals currently use cell phone networks to communicate. They would still use two-way PTT radios for emergency communications and cell phones as needed to stay off the UHF public safety radio band.

Agreed though, that even for data service the Google WiFi network will need to be much more robust to handle public safety traffic as well.


Posted by JP, a resident of North Whisman
on Jul 17, 2009 at 10:40 pm

I do not have $500 to set up an antenna or node to receive free Wi-Fi from Google. The Google Wi-Fi signal runs right through our property and I am unable and have never been able to connet to this so called free wi-fi.


Posted by Jenny, a resident of North Whisman
on Jul 18, 2009 at 8:15 pm

Thank you google for bringing free wireless to the city. I am a very proud and happy resident and homeowner of Mountain View. I got a Ruckus wifi router, ever since, I kissed good bye to Comcast / ATT. Can't be happier.


Posted by steve, a resident of another community
on Jul 18, 2009 at 8:42 pm

I live Old Middlefield way between Independence and San Antonio Rd right across 101 from Google and have never been able to get Google WiFi.. I even emailed them about the problem and they said they were going to look into it, that was a few years ago.. They Suck!!!!!


Posted by Peter Langlotz, a resident of Shoreline West
on Jul 19, 2009 at 12:19 am

When will Internet be universally accessible anywhere from any laptop for instance and totally free? It seems to me we could get coverage as good or better than cell phones if all the resources of all the high tech companies got pulled together [maybe greed is the primary factor preventing this? planglotz@hotmail.com & cruz_surfer@excite.com


Posted by Commander Taco, a resident of Whisman Station
on Jul 19, 2009 at 1:35 am

I wish Google will install WiFi in Whisman Station. There are so many Google employees living here and the rates from Comcast and Pacbell are ridiculus. Please Google, come install your WiFi here :-)


Posted by Whisman Parkman, a resident of Whisman Station
on Jul 19, 2009 at 1:37 am

You should install it in Whisman Park in Whisman Station. It's a public park, so I am surprised Google is not installing here.


Posted by Bill Lee, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 19, 2009 at 10:02 am

Why are people so negative about a free service?


Posted by Bill T, a resident of Shoreline West
on Jul 19, 2009 at 1:30 pm

I bought the Buffalo device at Fry's but was never able to get it to connect to Google wifi. I took it back. I have never had any success in connecting to Google wifi. I wish I could. It would save me nearly $50 every month (I currently have Comcast internet).


Posted by Steve, a resident of Castro City
on Jul 19, 2009 at 4:37 pm

What time is the meeting on Wednesday, July 22?


Posted by Jaclyn, a resident of another community
on Jul 20, 2009 at 1:46 am

I refuse to pay for the high prices of Comcast internet so i use Google WiFi whenever I can. I live off El Camino, in Mountain View, close to El Monte and Miramonte and I get a decent signal. At times it is strong and at times it is completely absent. Not sure where the nearest node on a light pole is, but I hope they install one a littler closer. What is this Buffalo antenna people are talking about? Does it automatically increase the signal of Google Wifi?


Posted by Adrian, a resident of Monta Loma
on Jul 20, 2009 at 9:34 am

You get what you pay for - and sometimes more. It is, sadly, human nature to demand the most of what we take for granted - we think we are promised something (oftentimes, allowing our hope to inflate what we think we are promised - see the people living in non-served areas who thought the promise was that the entire city, without exception, would be covered, then see the partial list of reasons in the article why that is not the case), and if it fails to be all that we expected, so we are angered.

But again: you get what you pay for. As the article indicated, if you don't get service, there's a forum where you can ask (wifi.google.com) - and you have to be persistent (as in, asking day after day); don't just stew in your anger and do nothing. This network already takes the volunteer efforts of a lot of people, who do not get paid directly for their time (the Google employees could be using their 20% time on stuff that gives them additional salary, for instance). You may have to meet the same standard, if you are to get access for your neighborhood (if you don't already have it). Yes, that means others will benefit from your labor without you getting paid directly for it. That's how it works (a specific instance of, "life isn't fair; deal with it").


Posted by Don Frances, Mountain View Voice Editor
on Jul 20, 2009 at 10:40 am

Don Frances is a registered user.

Steve,

The meeting is scheduled to start at 7 p.m.


Posted by Bob, a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jul 20, 2009 at 11:16 am

1. Have a Google account and password, ready;
2. Have most OS and browser access installed;
3. Install Google Chrome as one of the browsers, keep it updated, and keep the maps and other Google and MSN junk out of your life and off your machine, and if you blow it, don't put up ICONs, and crash;
4. After Google Chrome, you must have Internet Explorer and keep it updated, if you also have a Windows Operating System, period;
5. Install Mozilla Firefox, and its updater, or the other browsers will stink up the universe with poor performance, forever and ever;
6. IObit Freeware offers System Care FREE edition, 3.1.1 or so, and if you run this, a LOT, you can stay tuned;
7. AVG anti-virus FREE edition from Major Geek or somewhere good will be mandatory, to boot up and update, AS SOON AS YOU HIT Google WiFi;
a. AVG updates well, only AFTER you engage Google, and you need it, to sweep, at the end of the day, as soon as you think you get to install a Mozilla browser, on a Windows OS, and somehow not catch and detain the legion of hostile tracking cookies, installed by Mozilla, in the course of its rampage through your little PC, when you let it clobber Internet Explorer and take Chrome out, just to kick it, so run that AVG in the evening, and you can pick up your session, in morning.


Posted by MV renter, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 20, 2009 at 6:56 pm

I picked up one of those Ruckus WiFi modem as recommended by Google at the time. Hey, it worked! They were very clear about the limitations of the free system when they first offered it. I think those who use the Mountain View library are very happy it is available too.
Way to be a good citizen Google. Thanks.


Posted by David, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 22, 2009 at 12:00 am

I live in downtown in their "dead spot" and am happy to not have their service. I really would rather have less radiation and more bees and I'm not a tree hugger.


Posted by Mr. Big, a resident of North Whisman
on Jul 22, 2009 at 5:23 am

Thx Google for the free WIFI.

For those of you trying to use a laptop or PC indoors, you need to upgrade your WIFI modem (don't rely on the built-in one).

You don't need to spend $500 for it either, it should cost you between $60-100.

Got to Expressnets (they are local, go pick it up) and buy a 200mW or greater USB WIFI device:
Web Link
Scroll down to the bottom of the page (~$60). You could probably go online and find more powerful devices, but these guys are local and know the Google WIFI system and you can return the devices if you are too far from a node.

If you want to get an even better connection, buy a directional antenna booster ($40 @ Expressnets or $10 for an Airlink at Fry's).

For those truly far from a node, you might try adding a Cantenna directional antenna ($40 @ Fry's to a 200mW or greater device).

Web Link

Web Link

If you can't connect with a 200mW or 400mW WIFI modem and a Cantenna, then you are not getting on. You will have to stick with DSL or Cable.


Posted by Jack, a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jul 22, 2009 at 10:04 am

Google Wi-Fi is unreliable. I can't even get it when sitting under a light pole with one of their hideous antennas attached. Weak signal that drops all the time...bleh, useless.


Posted by hstate, a resident of Shoreline West
on Jul 22, 2009 at 11:04 am

Google wifi is a joke. Weak signal, frequent drops. I live line of sight of three wifi relays and can't get an IP address, even with an amplifier.


Posted by lord fogg, a resident of Blossom Valley
on Jul 22, 2009 at 6:48 pm

big bohter and the holding company is comeing soon.the police state is comeing. welcome big bother now in mt.view is now a police state.


Posted by Bobby, a resident of Whisman Station
on Jul 22, 2009 at 9:19 pm

Definitely need to get this wifi into Whisman Station. It's a huge neighborhood.


Posted by Michael Jackson, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 23, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Google has saved me several thousand dollars in the last few years and never raised my taxes. Long live Google.


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