Napa looks to high-speed cellular Internet for downtown area

Downtown Napa is seen in September 2016 from a scaffold surrounding the steeple of First Presbyterian Church. After seeing proposals over the years to install public Wi-Fi Internet coverage in the heart of town, city officials are now weighing whether to allow the use of light poles, traffic signals and other fixtures as mounting points for a next-generation cellular data network.

J.L. Sousa, Register file photo

Napa and Verizon Wireless may complete a trade – of more places to set up cellphone transmitters in exchange for what may become the backbone of a synchronized, traffic-smoothing network of stoplights.

An agreement up for review Tuesday by the City Council would open up city-owned light poles and traffic signals for the telecommunications company to install so-called small cells, or shorter than higher cell towers, throwing a wider web of coverage for wireless Internet and voice calls. Combined with new fiber-optic cable lines, the transmitters also are expected to link to Napa’s traffic control hardware and allow the city to monitor its stoplights at all times – and eventually carry images from surveillance cameras to track accidents and emergencies.

After deciding where to install its new cells, Verizon is to pay the city $100 a year for the use of each location, with the fee rising 2 percent annually. The contract will run for 15 years with up to three two-year extensions, but Napa will be able to opt out after the seventh year of the deal.

Mounting cell transmitters to city traffic signal equipment is the latest evolution of plans, going back more than a decade, to improve wireless web service in Napa’s core.

That aspiration originally took the form of a public Wi-Fi network, approved in 2007, that was intended to offer Napans and visitors free ad-supported Internet access while enabling city police and fire forces to share records in the field. But the Wi-Fi plan was scrapped within months when city officials learned the available space on light and utility poles was too low for antennas to work properly.

At their annual goal-setting conference in January, Napa council members turned away from any further Wi-Fi proposals, embracing a fortified cell network as a better fit for a world dominated by smartphones instead of desktop and laptop computers. Talks with Verizon began as early as the summer of 2016, Scott Nielsen, the city’s information technology director, said at the time.

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A robust wireless data system also will let Napa take a step forward managing its traffic flow. The city Public Works department has supported using such a web to synchronize the timing of 55 traffic signals to reduce slowdowns for downtown drivers.

Later Tuesday, the City Council will fill three seats on the Planning Commission, Napa’s land-use authority, for two-year terms running through the end of 2019.

All three commissioners who are up for new terms have applied to stay on – Napa architect Paul Kelley, one of two designated “design professionals” with the agency, along with Beth Painter and Alex Myers. Kelley was first appointed in May 2013, Painter in December 2015 and Myers in December 2016.

Also seeking places on the commission are Alton Hoover, Michael Rogers and Katherine Lambert, who has applied for a design-oriented seat. All six candidates will be interviewed by the council before the selections.

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.