Santa Clara free Wi-Fi piggybacks smart meters

The city of Santa Clara has become the first city in the country to provide free outdoor Wi-Fi access for an entire community as part of an advanced electric meter upgrade program that uses wireless technology to read meters.

The perk is being offered through Santa Clara’s municipal electric utility, Silicon Valley Power (SVP). The utility provides power to more than 50,000 customers, including tech giants Applied Materials, Intel, Owens Corning and Yahoo!

John Roukema, director of Silicon Valley Power, said:

“This is just one of the major benefits our community will enjoy as a result of our advanced metering technology.  Now our residents, visitors and local workforce can get Internet access while waiting for a train, shopping, getting their car washed or relaxing in their yard.”

Information about the Wi-Fi access is available at www.santaclarafreewifi.com, and users will see the network identifier (SSID) “SVPMeterConnectWiFi” when they log in.  SVP anticipates more than 5,000 connections a day within the tech-focused city of 117,000 people.

According to city officials, when advanced “smart” meters are installed at residences starting later this year, electricity and water usage information will be highly encrypted and sent via wireless network.

Security on this part of the system mirrors that of banking and national defense institutions, and the technology will also locate outages quickly and help customers monitor their own electricity usage.

The same SVP MeterConnect equipment carries a separate channel for the free, public and unencrypted outdoor Internet service at 1 megabit per second.  The security and signal strength of the network will vary depending on devices used and location.

LinkPath Communications of El Granada, Calif., guided the design and installation of the wireless system, and is responsible for customer service and maintenance of Santa Clara Free Wi-Fi.

Larry Hambro, president of LinkPath Communications, said:

“The new wi-fi system is especially beneficial for people on a fixed income who want to access the Internet.”

Larry Owens, SVP manager of customer services, said that the cost of running the wireless Internet service will be about $200,000 per year, but that other wireless applications that provide energy usage and other information will be added to the base system in the near future.

A nine-year-old wireless Internet service, installed by Metro WiFi, will be removed and replaced with the new system, which will provide much better connectivity, said Owens:

“We put in 600 routers and 60 connection points, which makes the system really robust.  There’s a lot of long-term gain in this investment – as a community benefit, it’s a gem.”