Municipal Wi-Fi: No More Free Ride

The towns of Elgin and Walla Walla in Eastern Oregon might as well serve as
advertisements for the positive attributes of municipally-supported Wi-Fi. Long
neglected by the telco’s who refused to offer high speed broadband to such sparsely
populated communities, today, thanks to wireless technology, these communities
have the chance to bridge a digital divide that’s left them feeling isolated
and marginalized.

"This isn’t a luxury. This is a necessity," said Dan Stark, director
of the Oregon Center for Rural
Policy, Research and Services
, a nonprofit group that’s attempting to generate
support for a public-private partnership that would bankroll a wireless signal
broadcast from two fiber drop points.

"If we don’t have broadband, that’s going to be the death knell of us.
And so we have to be able to bridge that and find a way to do it. It’s not a
matter of can we do it, but when and how."

City planning officials are best advised to look to a number of successfully
deployed municipal wireless networks that have revived economically depressed
business districts, extended government services and lessened the digital divide
in disadvantaged communities.

But which model the municipalities choose to pursue depends on citizen demographics
and, to a larger extent, budgetary shortfalls that today are an all-too-common
reality for most cities and towns.

Municipalities that own their own fiber can most cost-effectively deploy wireless.
But oftentimes they’re paralyzed by disagreements between IT departments concerned
with security risks and the public relations folks who want to hype the technology,
said Sean LeMon, president of Color Broadband, which provides high
speed Internet access to Long Beach’s downtown wireless hotzone.

Color Broadband more than doubled in size after linking up with Long Beach,
and yet LeMon said he’s frustrated because the $4,000 contract barely covers
the cost of the raw bandwidth. Moreover, the sweetheart deal offered to Long
Beach has created unrealistic expectations.

"Every mayor in every city has heard about Long Beach
and they’ve all been calling us and e-mailing us," said a perturbed LeMon.
"We’re becoming a bit of a name brand for Wi-Fi in downtowns, which is
great, but everyone wants it for free."

If donated services and equipment enabled early-adopter cities to launch wireless
networks, going forward there won’t be any more free rides, LeMon said.

"The Proxims and Verniers of the world will do one or two for hype but
the problems is now there’s hundreds of cities that want wireless in their back
yard and they’re not going to donate any more equipment. They’re saying, we’re
here to make money, too. That’s what they’re saying. They’ll give them
discounts but it’s the first cities that jump on the bandwagon that get the
free toys and everybody else has to figure out how to get it some other way."

In-kind contributions from wireless vendors Color Broadband, Vernier Networks,
G-Site and Intermec reduced the Long Beach hotzone price tag from $300,000 to
under $10,000, according to Chet Yoshizaki, the city’s economic development
manager.

But although the project exceeded his expectations, Yoshizaki said he doesn’t
exclude the possibility of having to limit usage or institute a fee-based model
when the contract comes up for renewal.

Still, Long Beach airport will soon go wireless thanks to the help of JetBlue
Airlines
, and Yoshizaki says he is optimistic Long Beach businesses will
provide advertising revenue as well.

"I just have to think of ways to partner with other people in terms of
marketing," said a satisfied Yoshizaki.

But such partnerships are merely preludes to fee-based models that generate
revenue for cash-strapped cities and the ISPs who view wireless as simply another
distribution mechanism for their services, warned municipal wireless consultant
Nigel Ballard, currently
the Wireless Director for Matrix Networks in Portland, Ore.

"It’s no different from the Starbucks T-Mobile
network
," complained Ballard. "You’ll still have to get your credit
card out if you want to play."

"We [city hall] don’t have any money. And you know city council doesn’t
have the money," said Ballard, repeating a commonly heard refrain uttered
by city officials. "So what they wait for is for you to come to them with
a deal that means that they get what they want but they don’t have to pay for
it. And what that means is a commercial entity that doesn’t want to give it
away. They want to sell it. They want to stick it on the roofs of city buildings
and so they get free landlords in effect. The teaser is that they’ll put some
restrictive bandwidth free service in an underprivileged area of town as long
as they can milk the rich part of the cow of retail."

In Ballard’s estimation, municipalities are foreclosing the possibility that
one day they might provide free wireless access to parks, libraries, schools
and low-income communities that he says deserve equal access to the Internet.

"You’re just delivering it in another way as opposed to putting down a
phone line or a broadband cable."

Ballard fears the city of Portland may be making that same quid-pro-quo tradeoff
because of its poor financial health. City officials say they’re still reviewing
proposals, and they point out that because Portland owns its own fiber it may
choose to become a provider in select circumstances.

Yet expanding one’s broadband service to the public requires additional funding,
said Matthew Lampe, Chief Technology Officer for the City of Portland. When
faced with budget shortfalls, the inclination may be to first roll out a fee-based
system.

"It’s not like building a fiber network where you’re talking millions
of dollars," Lampe said. "But in times that we’re facing where every
year we’ve been cutting–having to cut money, cut staff, cut training–coming
up with a chunk of money to expand our ISP services and devote some people to
separate stuff for security purposes, is some work and has some costs to it.

"I think cities have a role in bridging the digital divide and I think
this is one tool that may help do that. But that’s just one piece of it,"
Lampe added.

"The other piece is that if we can facilitate this then it is also one
of the tools that helps your business environment, particularly for businesses
that are either in the technology arena or are interested in using technology
to help improve their bottom line."

Lampe’s wish list may be unrealistic, given Portland’s present economic climate.
Yet there are examples of other cities such as Jacksonville, Florida, where,
one year after deploying a riverfront hotzone, the city expanded the program
to low income neighborhoods through a partnership that included Conexsys, a
network management firm, and BellSouth.

Connexsys president, James
Higbe, says it’s all part of a "maintenance" model (as opposed to
a subscriber mode) by which Internet connectivity costs are spread out (and
thus kept lower) to the entire community.

It’s not social obligation, said Higbe, but something that will pay off in
increased employment opportunities, education levels and services access.

"The trick is it’s hard to show people where it’s going to make them lots
and lots of money," added Higbe. "But as far as ISPs go, you’re going
to get ISPs who are going to want to operate in this space as well and, as an
integrator, I can’t wait."

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