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Meir Rinde

 

The End of the First Act?

Hartford’s new wireless network is up and running. Now it’s up to residents to create their own technological revolution.

 

By Meir Rinde

November 9, 2006

  

The scene at the former Breakthrough Magnet School was festive last Thursday afternoon. The building on Cornwall Street in Blue Hills bustled with politicians, children, and neighborhood residents picking up refurbished computers that the city is selling for $150 as part of the rollout of its newly launched wireless network.

Frances Major, a great-grandmother and tech novice, was there to take a 45-minute training session and get her machine. “I’d do a lot of things with it,” said Major, who lives up the street from the school. “I’d do my bills and things on it, you know. My grandkid, she’s going to show me how to do it.”

“She’s dying to e-mail her friends,” said Major’s daughter, Winona Newman.

Major said she’d never used a computer, in part because she couldn’t afford to buy one.

“I didn’t want to bother with it at first, and then all of a sudden all my girlfriends had one,” she said. “You know, ‘Oh, you got to get one.’ I said, ‘Oh, no.’ And then after this came along, I said, ‘Oh, yeah.’”

Stories like Major’s are sweet music not only to Mayor Eddie Perez, who made the wireless project a highlight of his agenda, but to advocates around the country who want underserved communities to take advantage of the computer revolution.

While millions of people routinely scan job listings and watch TV online, many others depend on metered screen time at libraries, have slow dialup at home or, like Major, simply don’t use computers. Surveys suggest only about a quarter of Hartford homes have computers at all.

Perez talks about residents discovering new job opportunities online and parents becoming more connected to their children’s schools. But they’ll first have to pay for hardware and, after a trial period, for a monthly access fee, and they’ll also have to decide whether to use their computers as on-ramps to the information superhighway or simply as overgrown PlayStations.

Winona Newman says she’s hoping the computer gives her mother independence, letting her type up documents for her church without her daughter’s help.

“You’ll have to call back in about four or five months and check on her to make sure she’s doing what she should be doing,” Newman said, and both laughed.

 

The city is spending a million dollars to put up wireless antennas on lampposts around Blue Hills and downtown and to subsidize the sale of 900 refurbished computers for half of their $300 cost. Perez wants to eventually extend the system citywide, paying for it with revenue from wireless access fees and an estimated additional $3.4 million in city funds.

So far, signing up for access at hartford.gov/wifi has been a snap, and the signal is speedy, when you can get it. From the southern end of Blue Hills Avenue we checked our e-mail at a respectable speed of about 700 kbps, which is slower than cable and faster than some DSL lines. But on Ridgefield Street, across from a stand of trees in Keney Park, our laptop registered no signal at all. The leaves absorb the signal, according to a project manager at IBM, which built the system for the city.

The system is free until March, and after that the first 20 hours a month will remain free for residents. Those who want more time and non-residents who want to use the system will have to pay a fee of $12 to $17 per month, said Matt Hennessy, Perez’s chief of staff. Downtown workers who spend their lunch hour checking stock prices in Bushnell Park are expected to generate revenue for the network’s expansion.

 

The fee structure sounded pretty good to Carlos Espinosa, director of the Trinfo Café in Frog Hollow, which offers free computer classes and gives away used computers.

Espinosa said he has some misgivings; he wishes the city would partner with his organization to give residents computer training, and include south Hartford in the wireless pilot. He also said even $150 would be too much to charge for a computer in a very poor area like Frog Hollow. But allowing residents a little free Internet access is a good start, he said.

“Twenty hours is wonderful,” he said. “That’s, what, 45 minutes a day? If you’re just a general e-mailer and doing basic browsing kind of stuff, that’s adequate time. That is a genius move. That makes me feel a lot better about the anxieties I had about pricing out people.”

Espinosa said he’s a strong believer in the importance of access to computers, calling the technological revolution “a civil rights movement in itself.” To make sure the wireless project is achieving its lofty goals, the city must conduct periodic surveys of residents to see whether and how they’re using the network, he said.

It’s also important for the city to know what it’s trying to achieve, said Tony Streit, a senior project director at the Education Development Center in Newton, Mass.

“It’s very important to establish really clear goals and then go back and evaluate them,” said Streit, who is on the board of CTCNet, a national consortium of community technology centers.

In other words, a municipal wireless network is a blessing and a challenge. On the one hand, “it’s an absolutely vital, critical resource,” said Sascha Meinrath, an expert on wireless networks who is also on the CTCNet board. “If I can’t get online I can’t apply to college, I can’t apply for benefits, I can’t apply for jobs, all these things that are necessary to everyday living.”

On the other hand, “it’s the end of the first act,” he said. Users need training, hardware, tech support, and local online resources that make the network useful. “You’ve provided the resource and that’s the first step,” Meinrath said, “but there’s a hell of a lot more that still must be done.”

 

Copyright © 2006, Hartford Advocate