The Goulburn Group Public WiFi Project (Goulburn, NSW)
Goulburn is a regional city with a population of 22,000 located in the New South Wales Southern Tablelands, 195km south west of Sydney and 90km north east of Canberra. The region is traditionally known for its agricultural output and Goulburn itself for its rich history as Australia’s first inland city. The city is a key business, social and cultural service centre for the region and its location between Sydney and Melbourne and Sydney and Canberra make it a popular tourist stopping point, although since 1992 the highway has bypassed the town centre.
Why Goulburn WiFi?
One of the first initiatives of the Goulburn Group (TGG), a community action group formed in 2008 by a group of residents and business people to research and promote environmentally and economically sustainable local development projects, was to put a proposition to the Goulburn Mulwaree Council to build and operate a public WiFi network in Goulburn’s CBD. Estimated cost to council was $16,000, of which $10,000 was sunk infrastructure costs and $6,000 data costs (which would recur in subsequent years).
TGG articulated a range of rationales for investment in public WiFi. One of the key reasons was to attract motorists into the town for the benefit of local business. Free WiFi was considered a particularly important offering since this was offered by the Highway-side McDonalds. Other articulated benefits of the network include:
- It would send a signal to the tourist industry, and business generally, that Goulburn was moving into the future.
- It would be highly attractive for so called “tree change” businesses. These are mostly home based businesses that value Goulburn for its lifestyle and ease of access. For such businesses top quality communication services are essential.
- It would encourage business in Goulburn to take advantage of online services and applications to change the way they conduct and manage their business. More businesses will be able to extend their activities beyond Goulburn and the region.
TGG were unsuccessful in persuading council to invest in public WiFi in 2008. At this time Council expressed various concerns about the network, particularly with regards to legal implications. In 2010, TGG again proposed the WiFi development to council suggesting an initial council outlay of $20,000. Again they were unsuccessful in convincing council.
In March 2013 TGG independently launched Goulburn Free Wireless. Council subsequently committed $3,000 per year for three years to assist the group with network maintenance and expansion costs and agreed to incorporate the network into its strategic marketing plans. In October 2014 the council erected signs advertising the service at the city entry points immediately after the highway exit ramps.
The Goulburn Free Wireless Network
Goulburn Free Wireless uses Openmesh WiFi mesh technology. This network architecture comprises a WiFi transmitter connected to an internet gateway that distributes a signal to end users as well as to other relay transmitters positioned inside a radius of between 50 and 100 meters which capture and relay the signal further to other end users, thereby creating a digital mesh. To expand the relay transmitters are added, while network capacity may be expanded by adding additional gateways.
When it was launched in March 2013 one main street business provided the internet gateway and two others provided relay points. By September there were five businesses providing a combination of access points and relay points. At the end of 2014 the network consisted of five gateways and six relay points.
The group has been successful in attracting both gateway and relay participants since the network only draws on bandwidth supplied as part of a business’s existing bundled broadband plan that is surplus to that business’s needs. The WiFi transmitters use very little power so there is little cost to participation.
TGG carefully monitor network use to ensure that surplus bandwidth capacity is not exceeded. The system has been designed to provide upload and download speeds that enable easy access to emails, Facebook, Twitter, Viber or Skype, but discourage large file transfers. The group has experimented with different speeds in a bid to provide the most effective service to the public while guarding against abuse that could undermine limited bandwidth resources. By the end of 2014, the group were operating the network at a very usable 512 kbps. The group are also experimenting with mechanisms through which businesses can benefit from their participation. This includes enabling gateway participants to advertise on a customised login splash page and to generate and distribute login vouchers that provide users higher speed network access.