Unwiring Dallas' Victory Park

Perot Systems and Hillwood Development -siblings under the same chairman - have worked together to bring free mesh Wi-Fi to the urban outdoors.
Building an urban Wi-Fi network? Might as well keep it all in the family.

Recently, the developers of a vast planned community in Texas brought in technology consultancy Perot Systems to help rig up the area for free public wireless access. The connection? Both Perot Systems and Hillwood Development are chaired by Ross Perot Jr.

“The Perot family has technology in their blood,” explains Dave Newgard, Perot Systems’ CTO for Hillwood’s Victory Park development. Marry tech savviness to an urban community, he says, and you get real estate that is ready to serve the laptop-toting masses.

In terms of sheer scale, Victory Park represents a sizable wireless landscape. At 75 acres, the mixed-use development encompasses seven million square feet of retail, residential, entertainment and office space adjacent to the American Airlines Center, home arena to the Dallas Mavericks. The W Dallas Victory Hotel and Residences opened there in June 2006.

Yet scale was not the chief hurdle in putting together an outdoor wireless network here. In fact, a key question was whether the network would, in fact, be entirely outdoors.

“At first, we were considering having an integrated solution, in-building and outside,” Newgard recalls. Trouble was, the W Hotel had plans of its own to deploy a for-fee wireless service within its space. “We wanted a free offering that would be pleasant for visitors, and our free use model conflicted with the hotel’s pay-for-use model.”

Eventually, Perot Systems advised the developer to go with an all-outdoor network.

A number of industry players have helped to deploy that network. BelAir Networks has provided scalable, mobile wireless broadband mesh networking solutions. Integrator Red One Network Solutions has delivered network integration and consulting services.

Even with such major players in the lineup, the technology team has had to swing hard to gain each base. For example, there was the rather ironic problem of having equipment that was just a little too good.

“These radios have the capability of quite a wide reach,” yet the network plan called for coverage only over certain limited public spaces, Newgard says. Network designers therefore had to give careful attention to the direction of antennas and the configuration of radios in order to limit the scope of the signal. “We designed it to accomplish what we needed and we didn’t go beyond that, but it does give us the ability to scale should the district grow.”

On the plus side, the nature of the planned community gave the team a geographic edge. Unlike the layout of most organically grown cities, Victory Park offers pretty much a straight shot in terms of the area in which users are most likely to congregate.

“I have a huge plaza situated [adjacent to] American Airlines Center arena -- that’s a public gathering space -- then I have a 1,500-foot outdoor mall, and then at the south end of the area we have a one-acre park,” Newgard says. A laptop user can stroll this open space from one end to the other without losing signal. “The size of the district and the layout are a definite advantage.”

Following a limited trial, the network has been fully operational since May. 10 to 20 people register at a pop-up welcome screen each day. Perot Systems offers no guess as to eventual usage volumes, but Newgard points out that the area is expected to draw one to two million visitors a year. The arena hosts 300 events a year, as does the House of Blues at the other end of the mall.

Who are these people? Newgard doesn’t want to know.

Okay, he does want to know. He would love to collect demographic information on anyone who uses the system. Yet after close consultation, system designers ultimately decided to ask for nothing but an e-mail address and password upon registration.

“If you were at a Web page and you started getting asked for personal information, you would probably get annoyed by it -- you just want your Internet,” Newgard says.

By the same logic, Hillwood has decided for the time being to spare users the intrusiveness of wireless advertising. “The system is capable of popping up a convenient ad as someone walks by the gelato store -- it is capable of doing that kind of proximity advertising -- but we don’t want to bombard our visitors with spam,” Newgard says. “We would rather they have a pleasant experience down here. We want them to stay, to visit our restaurants, maybe even buy a condo.”

Still, what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Users can do their ad-free browsing blissfully unaware of the Nomadix server running in the background, ever on the watch for viruses and other malware that users may bring with them into the network.

This article was first published on WiFiPlanet.com.

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