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A High-Tech Hot Spot in Oregon's High Desert

Wi-Fi access, set up for nerve gas depot emergencies, is free for all

November 27, 2005|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

HERMISTON, Ore. — Barreling down U.S. Highway 395, through remote farmland not far from a massive storage facility for old chemical weapons, Fred Ziari beckoned his passenger to jump on the Internet.

"OK, go ahead," Ziari, an Iranian-born wireless communications entrepreneur, said with a touch of glee. "Launch your browser. It's free!"

Fast, free broadband wireless access to the Internet might seem an unlikely amenity for this part of the country. But in a roughly 700-square-mile area stretching across five counties in eastern Oregon and Washington state, unimpeded wireless fidelity, or Wi-Fi, access is being given a unique trial run by individuals, police departments, shippers and even onion brokers.

The reason this wireless hot spot -- believed to the largest in the nation -- was set up in the first place was not for those potential users, however. It was built as an emergency communications system in the event of a leak at the Umatilla Chemical Depot, where nearly 4,000 tons of sarin, mustard and other Cold War-era nerve gases are stored in concrete igloos.

The wireless network, which cost about $5 million to set up, is almost entirely paid for from federal, state and local emergency-preparedness funds. Ziari runs the private company that built and maintains the system, EZ Wireless.

In a disaster, officials here say, the wireless network will provide vital communications across the area about evacuation plans and the wind direction.

Despite that sobering reality, residents seem to be looking at the brighter side of the network's usefulness, including its potential to attract business to the area.

In cities and suburbs across the nation, proposals for free or reduced-cost Wi-Fi access to the Internet pit a self-styled populist movement against cable and telephone industries that have spent billions laying connections to homes and businesses.

While "Wi-Fi for all" proponents liken the amenity to municipal water or interstate highways, critics say it's an unfair public subsidy in what should be a private marketplace.

All those arguments seem beside the point in the Hermiston area, where many houses and farms are so far out in the country that they have neither cable nor high-speed DSL lines. Thus, the wireless network faced little protest when it was started up two years ago.

Ziari's system uses dozens of antennas to pick up and broadcast a signal. Technically a combination of short-range signals known as Wi-Fi and longer-range ones known as WiMax, the combined effect creates a wireless "cloud" allowing access from almost anywhere in the Hermiston area.

"It has opened our eyes to all kinds of possibilities," said Kim Puzey, general manager of the Port of Umatilla, which is near the convergence of the Columbia and Snake rivers and is one of the largest grain ports in the country. "We're no longer confined by wires."

Port workers, farmers and shippers, who are spread across a vast area, already communicate about shipments via the network.

The port also plans to set up a network of cameras at key shipping and storage points that will be accessed via the Internet and, officials say, will provide a vastly improved security system.

Longer range, Puzey said, the port envisions an electronic tag system that will not only verify for shippers where their goods are, but also let them see the goods.

"It's sort of a step beyond even where FedEx and UPS are now with their tracking systems," Puzey said.

It's a potential competitive advantage -- Oregon's wheat farmers, for instance, sell their grain around the world, so an Internet tracking system could allow them to show the product directly to a potential buyer in Pakistan or Thailand.

Bob Hale, one of the Subway sandwich chain's biggest suppliers of red onions, already can do that with a digital camera. He often takes photographs when he's out in the fields and sends them via his laptop to potential buyers. Then he calls them on his cellphone.

"I'll say, 'You see that onion I'm showing you? I'm going to harvest it tomorrow and send it to you,' " Hale said. "Customers love that."

Hale, the president of Hermiston-based American Onion, uses the wireless network for everything from checking sports scores to monitoring aerial photos of his 40,000-acre farm. That allows him to see potential trouble spots right away -- for instance, an area where a sprinkler is plugged with dirt and not properly irrigating his plants.

"Vegetables are very temperamental," Hale said. "Timing is everything in the vegetable business. They're like kids, actually. When they need something, especially water, they need it right now."

Another enthusiastic user of the network is Dan Coulombe, the chief of Hermiston's 23-officer Police Department.

"Our officers now can get and send information directly over the Internet," said Coulombe.

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