By next week, downtown Champaign should be covered in an invisible wireless net making free Internet access available to almost anyone with a wireless laptop and other mobile devices using the common Wi-Fi standard.
Employees from Champaign-based Pavlov Media, which is installing the system as a community gift and publicity tool; Go Networks, the wireless equipment provider; and the city of Champaign began deploying the necessary hardware Thursday morning.
The project will place wireless access points, or nodes, on 10 locations downtown in an area bounded by State Street, Church and Main streets, Walnut Street and University Avenue.
The Champaign City Council cleared the way for the project in June by approving an agreement to allow the wireless access points to be placed on traffic signal and light poles.
Since then, city officials have been reviewing the system as Pavlov has settled on the equipment it will use, said T.J. Blakeman, the Champaign city planner who has worked on the project. The city is helping with the installation, particularly connecting the nodes to power.
"They'll be hard-wired into the lights," Blakeman said.
The city is allowing the installations at no charge as long as the service remains free, which is Pavlov's intention.
Go Networks, a national mobile high-speed wireless provider that's a division of NextWave Wireless, became aware of the project from a story on the Web and quickly pitched its technology to Pavlov.
"This is gonna be one of my reference networks," said Kevin Soss, the Midwest sales representative for the company, based in Mountain View, Calif.
"We're real excited about the partnership," said Dorothy Kallmayer, Pavlov's business development manager.
Go Network's Yaniv Sazman said the wireless nodes have been tested with a range as far as 13 miles in unobstructed terrain. In town, they will broadcast a signal for about a half mile, he said.
"This one can pretty much cover the whole park," Soss said, standing near a light pole at Church and State streets across from West Side Park.
That coverage will depend to some extent on the number of trees between a user and a node, which can affect reception.
"Concrete, steel, especially sheet metal, it's not a good conductor of signals," said Soss, a 1973 University of Illinois graduate.
That will make the system largely an outdoor thing, although people in downtown buildings may be able to pick up a signal near windows.
The nodes work together to create a wireless "mesh" network that should basically cover the whole downtown, and even heal itself automatically if one node goes out, Soss said.
Pavlov, headquartered in Church Street Square downtown, provides voice and data communications and digital video entertainment services for apartment communities and other, generally "bulk," customers in 29 states. The company employs 86 people and operates a 24-hour call center.
Pavlov has a lot of customers in the Champaign-Urbana area but isn't well-known locally in general. The wireless system should heighten its profile. Pavlov officials also see the system as a community asset that could draw even more people to Champaign's burgeoning downtown, Kallmayer said.
People should be able to use the system with any standard Wi-Fi-equipped, Web-capable laptop or mobile device. Users will need to provide a name, address and phone number to register.
Access will come in three-hour increments, Kallmayer said, after which someone using the system will have to sign on again.