This summer, downtown Las Vegas will join Denver, El Paso, Houston and dozens of other municipalities that have installed free wi-fi service in their city centers in an attempt to foster their burgeoning tech scenes.
Phase 1, active by early summer, will include an area bound by U.S. 95 to the north, Eighth Street to the east, Charleston Boulevard to the south, and I-15 to the west. Phase 2, following shortly after, will add an additional area bound by Charleston to the north, Las Vegas Boulevard to the east, Wyoming Avenue to the south and Main Street to west. A third phase is also in development, which will extend service further southeast along Fremont.
While the wi-fi umbrella will cover areas that are primarily home to commercial businesses, some residents of downtown will also be able to enjoy the free service. Due to the nature of wireless broadcasting, if you’re just outside the supported zones, you may still luck into being within connectivity range — even more so if you happen to have a longer-ranged wi-fi antenna available. If you’re particularly handy, pick up a cheap used DirecTV or Dish Network reflector from a garage sale and build one yourself.
As the wi-fi service will be administered and controlled by the involved partners, there will be no cost to the city. The antennas will be mounted on existing infrastructure (primarily light poles) and maintained by the companies providing the system.
Per-user bandwidth will be limited to 768/kbps downstream and 528/kbps upstream (about the equivalent of a bottom tier DSL or cable Internet account). In other words, don’t expect to stream HD films from your Netflix account, but for day-to-day browsing and even Skype use, the service should be fine.
The total bandwidth allotment has not been revealed, but Jace Radke, public information officer for the City of Las Vegas, says that coverage will continue to expand as high use areas are identified.
So, free wi-fi! Who are the players involved, and what’s the catch?
Internet service provider LV.net will deploy the hardware and broadband connection. The company has been online for ages (in Internet years), starting in the 1990s as a dial-up ISP, and it still provides both wireless and DSL services. You may have already seen, if not used, one of its local wi-fi networks: LV.net’s pay-to-use travelers wi-fi currently blankets parts of downtown and The Strip.
The front end and interface will be driven by R66T Digital Media (originally OnSite Media), a local content-management company.
In typical Las Vegas style, the downtown wi-fi installation is not a purely altruistic movement, as the network, supported by advertising, intends to be profitable.
These advertising-based systems generally work in one of two ways: Either the user must first sit through advertising before going online, or they are presented with ads continuously while browsing, most often in the form of a banner ad across the top of the browser. How our particular implementation will work has yet to be revealed.
Good thing: If the ad rates and access are reasonable, this may actually prove to be a boon to downtown area businesses, allowing for both greater exposure and discovery.
Bad thing: Being corporate rather than municipally driven, the wi-fi service will have to make money. If it isn’t profitable, don’t expect it to be around for long.
Still, free wi-fi! Ad-driven or not, it’ll be nice to have yet another item checked off on the #vegastech bucket list. Look for me in a few months — I’ll be the guy in the backyard a mile away from Phase 1, holding aloft a laptop and a modified Pringles can, trying heroically to catch a signal.
CHRIS AINSWORTH is a native Las Vegan and tech dilettante. Find him on Twitter (@driph) or at driph.com.