Catching the Wireless Wave

County will likely reject new initiative for South County;
Gilroy eyes program to bring wireless technology to downtown
Gilroy – A new initiative to link the peninsula with Santa Cruz through the South Valley with wireless technology isn’t likely to catch on in South County.

“We looked at it and felt that to do that for South County, because it’s so spread out, will be too costly,” Santa Clara County Supervisor Don Gage said. “I’m not going to support it because the cost is too great. We have other priorities.”

Called Smart Valley, the initiative is the brainchild of the Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, a consortium of business, government and academic leaders. Its aim is to cover 1,500 square miles stretching from Fremont, south to Gilroy, west to Santa Cruz and as far north as San Mateo with the technology to allow anyone, anywhere, to log on to the Internet.

Joint Venture Vice President Seth Fearey said the program will make it possible for public safety and public works officials to access maps and improve communications, and help the region regain its position as the technology innovator.

“The feeling is we are lagging behind other communities in the country and the world in how we use the Internet and provide access to broadband,” Fearey said. “Even where there is coverage, we’re not using it. We still have a lot of people on dial-up.”

But limitations in the technology and the area’s layout and topography make installing wireless infrastructure challenging. With relatively few users, it’s difficult for a provider to recoup its start-up costs in rural areas. It’s one thing to link Palo Alto and Mountain View, quite another to push the foothills into the wireless age.

“With the current technology that’s out there, there isn’t wireless technology that could reach from San Jose down to Gilroy,” said David Chulick, Gilroy’s information technology director. “I don’t see that happening now, but if they can reach us, I think the city will play.”

And while Smart Valley is being trumpeted as a way to help law enforcement and public safety providers, local officials already use cellular technology for mobile communications, with the option for Internet access. The Morgan Hill Police Department is in the process of upgrading its own system.

And even if South County doesn’t participate in Smart Valley, Morgan Hill and Gilroy are making strides to install wireless communications. Morgan Hill already has wireless access in its downtown, and Gilroy is kicking off a program that could lead one day to the city becoming an Internet service provider to its residents.

In the next few months, Gilroy will install wireless cameras to improve the traffic flow on Santa Teresa Boulevard and provide wireless Internet downtown. The city also has plans to create a citywide wireless network for city employees, and eventually, that network could tie in with the Smart Valley initiative.

“We haven’t chosen the model yet,” Chulick said. “I have concerns [about using a Smart Valley provider] because the police and fire will be using that network and sensitive information goes out over the wires.”

Morgan Hill has an even tougher task because the city is laid out like an octopus, with long tentacles of city land stretching out from the town center. But city leaders say they intend to push the technology as far as the city can afford.

“I don’t think it’s economically feasible to put it everywhere,” Councilman Steve Tate said. “But we do have to optimize it, and I think it’s inevitable sooner rather than later. We’re going to get there eventually.”