Free Charging Station/WiFi at Eastern Market Metro Plaza – “Soofa Bench”
Pilot Program Draws Cheers …and Questions
by Larry Janezich
Last Tuesday, night, John Stokes, Deputy Director of DC Department of Parks and Recreation, briefed ANC6B’s Constituent Services Task Force on the new free charging station and WiFi service installed at the NE corner of 8th and Pennsylvania Avenue, SE. The Task Force, chaired Tuesday night by Co-chair ANC6B Commissioner Jennifer Samolyk, greeted the prospect of broader free community WiFi with enthusiasm.
The station doubles as a park bench, under the brand name “Soofa Bench” after the fledgling MIT Media Lab spin-off company, launched to develop smart furniture for the urban environment. Stokes said the installation is part of a six to twelve month pilot program to determine whether the public will use the service – as well as if the location is right – before deciding whether to expand the program throughout the city. A second bench has been installed in Columbia Heights. According to Soofa, there are over 200 Soofa Benches in the U.S. in 21 states and 65 cities
The bench seats three and the services are powered by battery charged by a solar panel. There are two usb ports (you’ll need your own usb cord) for charging devices. The free WiFi can accommodate up to 64 log-on’s at one time and speeds of up to 50 Mbps. The WiFI service range is 75-100 feet from the bench.
This version of bench costs $7,500 each, as opposed to $2,100 for a regular bench. Soofa Benches can be upgraded with sensors to track air quality, noise levels, light levels and nearby pedestrian foot traffic, but benches currently installed in the pilot program are not equipped with those features.
Soofa characterizes it’s product as “…a straightforward technology that is meant to serve as a civic amenity.” Stokes told ANC6B commissioners in a follow-up email, “This WiFi will hopefully encourage more teens and adults to enjoy the city parks as they are meant for everyone. This is a sustainable element in this day since this is something that will encourage wider use of our parks and allow people to stay more connected and involved with our programs.”
ANC6B6 Commissioner Daniel Ridge, though not at the meeting, reviewed the minutes of the meeting and raised potential possible difficulties. Ridge, an informational systems analyst formerly with NASA, noted several concerns in an email to his fellow commissioners and to Stokes. Among them:
- Eastern Market Metro Plaza has several other sources of free WiFi, making it difficult to gauge true demand for Soofa Bench Wi-Fi.
- The coverage range for WiFi is poor compared to coverage from Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts both of which are located hundreds of feet away. He suggested relocating the WiFi router in a better place than under the bench.
- Sharp edges on the solar panel are a safety problem.
- The hazard potential of the battery powering the bench’s electronics has not been assessed.
- There are concerns regarding FCC certification for the electronic components.
Finally, Ridge questioned the premise of the entire Soofa Bench project, saying that benches should just be benches because they’re cheaper and safer and “free from the tangle of regulatory machinery that comes with internet enabled benches.“
Ridge concluded, “I would like to do anything I can to span the digital divide. I am concerned that this particular product may do more harm than good to that end and that this trial could actually set back the cause of ubiquitous WiFi.”