Roger L. Stancil, Town Manager


Bob Avery, Information Technology Director


Wireless Pilot Project


June 27, 2007


The purpose of this report is to respond to Town Council’s request for a staff proposal regarding a pilot wireless broadband connectivity project.


An interim report about connectivity improvement and public wireless access was presented and discussed at the Town Council meeting on April 23, 2007. The report identified three future steps for consideration – planning for fiber optic capability, short-term wireless hotspot projects, and further study to be conducted by a consulting firm.  Council Members requested that the staff provide a proposal for a wireless hotspot pilot project and recommendations regarding the involvement of a consulting firm in the development of a formal connectivity plan.


A pilot program to install a limited number of public internet access hotspots at locations in Chapel Hill would be beneficial in both gauging public interest and in evaluating ways to deliver the service before committing to a long term program. We can begin this by installing five hotspots this summer and evaluating their effectiveness.

These hotspots would be standard Wi-Fi devices based on the unlicensed radio spectrum and the widely used 802.11 wireless connectivity standards. The hotspot service would be open to all users on a “best available” basis; meaning that there is no guarantee of bandwidth, no round-the-clock maintenance support, and no on-line or dial-up user support. The type of antennae envisioned are designed for outdoor use and may not provide sufficient signal strength to penetrate buildings or allow users to connect beyond a few hundred feet.

The pilot project could be done as either a turn-key operation which is outsourced to a company specializing in wireless systems or as a hybrid project involving participation by commercial providers and Town staff. Regardless of the method chosen, there are a number of logistical issues that must be resolved in order to install the hotspots. These include selection of locations for hotspots, antennae mounting agreements, power supply agreements, and Internet connectivity agreements. One of the key limitations in developing a low cost program is the lack of Town facilities with existing broadband connectivity near public areas that would benefit most from the availability of the hotspots; thus Internet connectivity must be provided at a reasonable cost for the project to succeed as a low cost pilot program.

With the above thoughts in mind, the locations that have been identified for the pilot program include several locations on Franklin Street where the Town has existing facilities with electrical power and the Town’s park and ride lots. Using these sites to locate equipment will eliminate the need to establish antennae site and power agreements. Internet connectivity can be accomplished using Clearwire as the service provider which will eliminate the need for land line wiring and long term service agreements for the locations. The Clearwire Internet connectivity service, which is also wireless, will allow the Town to relocate the hotspot as may be desired.

One of the difficulties of providing wireless Internet access in the downtown area along Franklin Street is the existing wireless environment. We recently surveyed Franklin Street and found signals from 111 Wi-Fi wireless devices along the street. These devices all compete for the same unlicensed wireless radio spectrum. Although the spectrum has 11 channels designed to reduce interference, there is no mechanism to optimize the usage. Thus someone desiring to connect to one of the Town’s wireless hotspots may be unable to do so because of an interfering signal from one of the many wireless devices in use by businesses and individuals working and living along Franklin Street. We will attempt to optimize the connectivity through site location and channel selection.  Attachment 1 shows the results of the survey and indicates the locations of Town- owned property being considered for the initial installation of wireless hotspots in the downtown area.

The type of pilot project described above will provide a low cost means to establish a wireless presence during the next couple of months. We intend to continue investigating options with other providers of wireless systems to determine the most effective way to expand the program.


That Town staff continue efforts to establish public access wireless hotspots in the downtown area, including Franklin Street, and at several park and ride lots during the next several months and report back in October, 2007 regarding the progress of the pilot project. At that time we will also address options for involving a consulting firm in the development of a broadband connectivity feasibility study or business model.



1.      Wireless hotspot survey of downtown Chapel Hill (p. 3).