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Meir Rinde

 

A Wireless City

Mayor Eddie Perez has an ambitious plan to make Hartford a free wireless technology zone, one of the first in the country. It would mean free Internet access across the city. But industry could stand in the way.

 

By Meir Rinde

March 25, 2005

 

“Wiring the planet was the first step. Now the push to unwire it is in full swing.”

— Global Access Wireless Database, shmoo.com/gawd

 

Tucked away among the accomplishments and pledges Mayor Eddie Perez recited in his State of the City address earlier this month were a handful of specific proposals for technological innovations in Hartford. The most unexpected was a plan to build a wireless internet network that “covers the city of Hartford and provides free Internet access to our residents,” according to Perez’s description.

He also proposed giving residents computers at very low cost, something the schools have done in a limited way in the past.

“Hartford families who are on the wrong side of the digital divide face a bleak economic future,” Perez said. “It is time that the city of Hartford fully commits itself to building a technology infrastructure that brings all residents into the 21st century.”

The wireless proposal is innovative, not just for Hartford, but across the nation and even the world. Wireless itself is well-established; new laptop computers generally come with wireless cards installed, and many people routinely surf the Internet and e-mail wirelessly via private networks in homes and coffee shops, and through public networks in schools. But for technological, financial and political reasons, big public networks are still in their infancy. And truly free wireless Internet, where you can just sit down on a park bench with your laptop and instantly start reading HartfordAdvocate.com or any other site, is reserved to several small cities in the U.S. and abroad, as well as scattered “hot spots” in major cities.

As for blanketing a city of 120,000 residents with a Wi-Fi network — finding millions of dollars to install antennas on light posts and rooftops, making sure signals get over hills, around tree trunks and through brick walls, and not charging users a dime to get connected — that hasn’t happened anywhere yet.

“There are no citywide free networks that I’m aware of,” said Glenn Fleishman, the editor of Wifinetnews.com and an expert on wireless technology. “The closest things are downtown, exterior networks that are free in the business district.”

 

While the newness of the technology is the major reason municipal networks are rare, the biggest long-term obstacle to the creation of low-cost wireless is arguably the political might of the telecom monopolies, big companies like SBC and Verizon that have invested billions in creating broadband networks and want to charge people to get online.

They’ve already tried to quash the efforts of Mayor John Street of Philadelphia, a city much larger than Hartford but with a comparable digital divide. Street’s nascent, $10 million project to create a citywide wireless “cloud” with below-market connection fees nearly ended up stillborn last year, after the telecoms succeeded in having language inserted into a communications bill restricting the ability of cities to offer high-speed Internet service. Just before Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell signed the bill in December, a clause was inserted that exempted Philadelphia from the ban.

That makes Pennsylvania the 15th state to impose restrictions on cities that want to set up their own broadband systems using wireless fiber optic lines or other technologies, according to the American Public Power Association, which represents publicly owned utilities. In Florida, for example, public entities that offer telecommunications systems have to pay taxes that aren’t imposed on other services they provide. In Wisconsin, municipal providers must conduct feasibility studies and public hearings before setting up systems, and must charge a minimum rate for their services. Nevada prohibits cities of more than 25,000 people from offering retail telecom services.

But the tide may be turning, said Jim Baller, a Washington, D.C. attorney who is on the leading edge of the fight over public broadband. In 11 states where Baller is either involved in the issue or following the battle, opponents of barriers have mounted fierce opposition, he said.

“I am cautiously optimistic that few if any of these restrictions will be enacted,” Baller said. “There was a widespread revulsion to what happened in Pennsylvania, and as a result I think where new barriers have been introduced in state legislatures there has been an outpouring of opposition to them.”

Commercial broadband networks available in the Hartford area include SBC DSL and Comcast cable. Comcast spokesman Rob Wilson declined to comment on Perez’s plan, saying, “We need to take a look at the proposal more closely as it develops, but we are doing our part to bridge the digital divide as a company.” Comcast provides free Internet services to more than 400 schools, libraries, and Boys & Girls Clubs in Connecticut, he said.

Wilson suggested talking to Steve Titch of the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank in Chicago. In a debate on the Democracy Now! radio program in December, Titch opposed municipal networks as an unfair governmental encroachment on private companies, and said there are other ways to provide low-cost Internet access.

“Muni networks, especially competitive muni networks, are a bad way to spend city resources which are limited to begin with, because they duplicate networks,” Titch said. “It creates the problem where the city competes with the companies it taxes, franchises, licenses, and, in general, regulates. The city in essence becomes a player in a game it regulates.”

 

City officials say the plan to unwire Hartford is still being developed and they haven’t worked out the details yet. Matt Hennessy, the mayor’s chief of staff, said funding could come from borrowing, grants, or eRate monies, which are paid to the federal government by Internet service providers and used to get schools and libraries online. The city’s wireless system would cost between $4 million and $7 million to set up, Hennessy said.

“That’s real money, but when you look at the money we spend on other infrastructure improvements in the city, it’s not outside the bounds of reasonableness,” he said. “The real issue is, when folks in Connecticut are going to be required in the future to use a computer as an integral part of doing any job, or even to apply to service jobs online, if there’s no Internet access in Hartford we’re ensuring people won’t be able to apply to those jobs.”

In his speech, Perez said less than a third of city households are connected to the Web, and among the poorest families — those earning less than $15,000 a year — 83 percent don’t have a computer at home. That’s despite the market presence of SBC, Comcast and other providers. Nationwide, about two-thirds of households own personal computers, according to International Data Group, which tracks computer industry trends.

If the plan gets the go-ahead, the city will build the wireless network off its existing fiber optic lines, which reach schools, libraries and most other city buildings, said Michael Vasquenza, chief information officer for Metro Hartford Information Services. Members of his staff have visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to see the mesh network set up there, and though he wouldn’t offer a timeline, he said he’s confident they can build a similar system.

“Money is obviously an obstacle to everything,” Vasquenza said. “If they give us the money, we’ll pretty much do everything. We’re prepared to do exactly what the mayor indicated. We have staff working on this as we speak. I would be disappointed if we didn’t have some wireless zones somewhat in the near future.”

 

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