Review: Portland Wi-Fi a Mixed Offering

It rains a lot in Portland. So on days when the sun's rays make it all the way to the ground, who wouldn't want to take the city's new free Wi-Fi service for a spin?

The answer: anyone who wants an easy connection.

Portland officials announced last summer that it had reached a deal with Silicon Valley startup MetroFi Inc. to blanket the city with free, high-speed wireless Internet access. Unlike many cities that have jumped on the municipal Wi-Fi bandwagon, Portland faced little risk: MetroFi would pay to build and manage the network and make its money from online advertising.

No taxpayer dollars would be spent and the city would have another feather in its hat.

But a problem has cropped up: some users say it doesn't work.

One independent group hired by the city found the system provided more than 90 percent coverage within a certain distance to the network's access points. Two local community wireless activists did a study of their own and found just under 60 percent coverage.

I decided to check it out in a less-than-scientific study that involved getting out of the office and visiting about a half dozen places to browse the Internet or read e-mail on the go.

All the spots were outdoor because MetroFi's indoor access is limited. The company says distance, walls and interference from other devices cause problems. Inside, it recommends a Wi-Fi "booster" device. But at around $100, the extra gadget conflicts with my idea of "free."

My first attempt to connect was at Pioneer Courthouse Square, a wide-open space at the center of Portland's downtown where the service debuted in December.

Despite a strong signal, it took me several minutes to make a connection. Once it did, my Web browser -- Internet Explorer 7 -- loaded the MetroFi welcome page without pause. And the sign-in process was easy. It even included an understandable outline of privacy issues.

But when I tried to send my login information to begin browsing, I couldn't. After 10 minutes of fruitless attempts, I gave up and instead latched onto another free network's signal with ease.

At several stops within MetroFi's general service area, my computer regularly detected the network and showed a strong signal, but I was unable to log on.

MetroFi recommends visiting its Web site to check out its coverage areas prior to logging on. It tells users within 100 feet to 300 feet of its Wi-Fi access points that there should be no problem. It suggests a signal booster for locations 300 feet to 500 feet away. Beyond 500 feet, it suggests a special outdoor booster. MetroFi has arranged for discounts for users on such devices.

So much for spontaneity.

And despite heeding the guidance, I had little luck connecting.

Other available Wi-Fi networks -- using the same basic technology as MetroFi -- sailed through my quick list of demands: browsing speed, search response, accessing images and streaming video. (The others are provided by nearby shops, homes and even a system set up by volunteers.)

But the hotspots I happened to latch onto have an edge -- they aren't trying to send a signal 1,000 feet away. And it's much easier technically to "hear" back from my computer when the transmitter is a few feet away rather than a block or more.

Experts say the signal MetroFi sends out is strong, but the access points' ability to receive the information back from users with basic equipment is limited.

"It's like someone standing on stage with a microphone and someone in the audience whispering back," said Russell Senior, one of the wireless advocates who did the alternate test of the system.

When I tried standing directly below a transmitter affixed to a street sign, I was able to connect for the first time. It's not the greatest spot to surf the Web, but at least I found out that -- when it works -- the service isn't shabby.

Though the speeds aren't as zippy as a Digital Subscriber Line or cable modem, the difference was barely noticeable to me. The connection met all the demands I've put on other networks without a problem.

Pleased with my connection at the street corner, I tried one more possibly favorable location. I headed up -- way up -- to avoid any possible interference.

MetroFi is designed to service folks on the ground. But from the top of a Ferris wheel, the signal was fantastic: I briefly considered telecommuting from there, hovering above Portland. But I'm afraid of heights. And it's not on MetroFi's list of recommended sites anyway.

The Ferris wheel fun aside, the overall experience was frustrating.

MetroFi has said it will continue to work out bugs as it completes its rollout. And the company said it has reached 11,200 monthly users in May, up 40 percent from the month before. So it seems to be working for some people.

A connection is not impossible, but at this time it's less than the service-for-all concept I'd been hoping for.