Hilo gets some new Wi-Fi hot spots


In the past couple of months, small devices with blue lights have been installed on utility poles and lines around Hilo, especially in the downtown area.

Stephens Media Hawaii received numerous calls about those lights — some inquiring what they were, others with theories as to what they might be, including unpublicized traffic cameras, guidance or data collection posts for drone aircraft, or spy cameras operated by the National Security Agency.

As it turns out, there is a less Orwellian explanation.

They are wireless Internet hot spots recently installed by Oceanic Time Warner Cable.

Kiman Wong, Oceanic’s director of wireless service, said the statewide Wi-Fi project started in April last year on Oahu. Work started on the neighbor islands in September and October, he said.

“There’s a lot of them in Hilo town,” Wong said, adding the hot spots are going up in Kailua-Kona and other parts of the Big Island, as well.

He said the hot spots are not encrypted “because authentication is hard when it’s encrypted, signing in and stuff.”

A coverage map available at coverage.twcwifi.com shows downtown Hilo’s business district has the highest saturation of hot spots.

“We’ve initially targeted places where there are businesses and outdoor areas where people walk around, shop and sit,” Wong said. “The other kinds of places are parks. So, if there are pole lines by the park or the public beach, these are places that we are looking at.”

Kalakaua Park and Lincoln Park in downtown are covered by the hot spots as is Reed’s Bay Beach Park on Banyan Drive. Other covered locations include Hilo Medical Center and the medical office complex at the corner of Ponahawai and Komohana streets.

Wong said Oceanic customers with standard Internet service or higher or business class or commercial products can tap into the hot spots with free unlimited access.

“This system is being built primarily to give our Internet customers more value, to give them more access to Internet when they’re not in their homes or their businesses,” he said. “If you have a smartphone, a tablet or a laptop, you can connect.”

Others, Wong said, can also connect, but must pay a fee to do so.

“There’s per hour, per day, per week and per month choices,” he said. “You can pay by credit cards, sign up for that. Once you do that, there’s a time limit on it.”

Wong said speed on the hot spots is about 15 megabits per second for downloading, one megabit per second for uploading and the range of the hot spots is “approximately 200 feet in every direction.”

“That’s if there’s nothing blocking it, such as a concrete building or worse, yet, a metal building,” he said. “A wooden building will attenuate it. It won’t go as far. Usually with Wi-Fi, there’s what’s called the ‘two-wall rule.’ It will go through one wall and you’ll get a pretty good signal. You go through a second one, it’s a marginal signal. You go through three, you’re not gonna have a signal you can connect to.”

There are free apps available for iPhone and Android users to locate the hot spots, Wong said, and the number of hot spots will increase in the future.

“This year, we’re gonna be looking at other locations and analyzing how the current locations are doing,” he said. “There’s no initial end date to this project; we’re looking at four or five years. It’s gonna grow; demands are gonna change as we work this out. And over time, people are going to be using more and more wireless Internet applications. So, we’re just gonna continue to monitor what the usage is and see if there are different needs in different places.”

Wong also said there are “no plans to increase user charges” to pay for the hot spots.

“There are a lot of things that go into how we determine our charges,” he said. “We want to give more value for what you pay. There is competition for Internet service.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.