By RUKMINI CALLIMACHI, Associated Press Writer
Parked alongside his onion fields, Bob Hale can prop open a laptop and
read his e-mail or, with just a keystroke, check the moisture of his
As the jack rabbits run by, he can watch CNN online, play a video game
or turn his irrigation sprinklers on and off, all from the air
conditioned comfort of his truck.
While cities around the country are battling over plans to offer free
or cheap Internet access, often-times fighting with telephone
companies trying furiously to get them forbidden, this lonely terrain
is served by what is billed as the world's largest hotspot, a wireless
cloud that stretches over 700 square miles of landscape so dry and
desolate it could have been lifted from a cowboy tune.
Similar wireless projects have been stymied in major metropolitan
areas by telephone and cable TV companies, which have poured money
into legislative bills aimed at discouraging such competition. In
Philadelphia, for instance, plans to blanket the entire city with
Wi-Fi fueled a battle in the Pennsylvania legislature with Verizon
Communications Inc., leading to a law that limits the ability of every
other municipality in the state to do the same.
But here among the thistle, large providers such as local phone
company Qwest Communications International Inc. see little profit
potential. So wireless entrepreneur Fred Ziari drew no resistance for
his proposed wireless network, enabling him to quickly build the $5
million cloud at his own expense.
While his service is free to the general public, Ziari is recovering
the investment through contracts with more than 30 city and county
agencies, as well as big farms such as Hale's, whose onion empire
supplies over two-thirds of the red onions used by the Subway sandwich
chain. Morrow County, for instance, pays $180,000 a year for Ziari's
Each client, he said, pays not only for yearly access to the cloud but
also for specialized applications such as a program that allows local
officials to check parking meters remotely.
"Internet service is only a small part of it. The same wireless system
is used for surveillance, for intelligent traffic system, for
intelligent transportation, for telemedicine and for distance
education," said Ziari, who immigrated to the United States from the
tiny Iranian town of Shahi on the Caspian Sea.
It's revolutionizing the way business is conducted in this former
"Outside the cloud, I can't even get DSL," said Hale. "When I'm inside
it, I can take a picture of one of my onions, plug it into my laptop
and send it to the Subway guys in San Diego and say, 'Here's a picture
of my crop.'"
Even as the number of Wi-Fi hotspots continues to mushroom, with
72,140 now registered globally, only a handful of cities have managed
to blanket their entire urban core with wireless Internet access.
Hundreds of cities from San Francisco to Philadelphia have announced
plans to throw a wireless tarp over their communities, and a few
smaller ones such as Chaska, Minn., have succeeded. But only Ziari
appears to have pinned down such a large area.
The wireless network uses both short-range Wi-Fi signals and a version
of a related, longer-range technology known as WiMax. While Wi-Fi and
WiMax antennas typically connect with the Internet over a physical
cable, the transmitters in this network act as wireless relay points,
passing the signal along through a technique known as "meshing."
Ziara's company built the towers to match the topography. They are as
close as a quarter-of-a-mile apart inside towns like Hermiston, and as
far apart as several miles in the high-desert wilderness.
Asked why other municipalities have had a harder time succeeding, he
replies: "Politics. The telephone companies, especially SBC, are
making it very time consuming and difficult for most towns."
"If we get a go-ahead, we can do a fairly good-sized city in a month
or two," said Ziari. "The problem is getting the go-ahead."
"The 'Who's-going-to-get-a-piece-of-the action?' has been a big part
of the obstacles," said Karen Hanley, senior marketing director of the
Austin, Texas-based Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry group.
No major players were vying for the action here, making the area's
remoteness -- which in the past slowed technological progress -- the key
to its advance.
Morrow County, which borders Hermiston and spans 2,000 square miles,
still doesn't have a single traffic light. It only has 11,000 people,
a number that does not justify a large telecom player making a big
investment, said Casey Beard, the director of emergency management for
Beard was looking for a wireless provider two years ago when Ziari came
knocking. The county first considered his proposal at the end of 2002
and by mid-2003, part of the cloud was up.
The high desert around Hermiston also happens to be the home of one of
the nation's largest stockpiles of Cold War-era chemical weapons. Under
federal guidelines, local government officials were required to devise
an emergency evacuation plan for the accidental release of nerve and
Now, emergency responders in the three counties surrounding the
Umatilla Chemical Depot are equipped with laptop computers that are
Wi-Fi ready. These laptops are set up to detail the size and
direction of a potential chemical leak, enabling responders to direct
evacuees from the field. Traffic lights and billboards posting
evacuation messages can also be controlled remotely over the wireless
"We had to find a way to transmit huge amounts of data -- pictures, plume
charts ... All that data is very complex and it's hard over radio to
relay to someone wearing chemical protective gear," said Beard.
And for the Hermiston Police Department, having squad cars equipped
with a wireless laptop means officers can work less overtime by being
able to file their crime reports from the field.
While the network was initially set up for the benefit of city and
county officials, it's the area's businesses that stand to gain the
most, say industry experts.
For the Columbia River Port of Umatilla, one of the largest grain
ports in the nation, the wireless network is being used to set up a
high-tech security perimeter that will scan bar codes on incoming
"It has opened our eyes and minds to possibilities. Now that we're not
tied to offices and wires and poles, now what can we do?" said Kim
Puzey, port director.
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
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