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10/4/2005
07:33 AM
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Let Local Wi-Fi Flourish

Cities need the flexibility to try whatever they and their citizens deem to be in their best interests, without interference from Congress or any other group.

With millions of dollars on the table, and that amount growing almost daily, the telecom industry is starting to get serious about fighting some localities that are building Wi-Fi networks.

The systems are being built for public safety, to improve efficiency of government workers, and to improve the lives of their citizens overall. The laudable goal of many of the cities and towns going Wi-Fi is to make available affordable Internet services, at least in part to bridge the 'digital divide' that keeps poorer communities locked out of the information economy.

The debate is shaping up to be protracted and nasty. On one side are the telecoms, which say that the networking infrastructure already exists, there are plenty of providers, and allowing towns and cities to grow-their-own means less investment in the networks that already exist. It's interesting how telecom providers were very happy to try to regulate the cable companies attempting to land on their turf, but now these same companies are crying 'freedom from regulation' and are using the pro-competition mantra to convince lawmakers to side with them.

Unfortunately, this tack seems to be working in some places. The governors of Virginia and Pennsylvania have already seen fit to sign bills restricting their own cities from building their own Wi-Fi networks. (A bill in Texas to do the same was defeated.)

And now U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), has introduced HR 2726, which prevents localities from offering telecom services except in places where services aren't already available. A less restrictive bill--S. 1504--was introduced by U.S. Senators John Ensign (R-Nev.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.); it allows municipalities to build networks, but basically ensures that telecom vendors have the right to bid and participate in the project.

On the other side of the debate: the hundreds of towns and cities that have already built Wi-Fi networks, or are in the process of doing so. Intel's jumped into the fray with its Digital Communities initiative, where it's working with Cisco, Dell, IBM, and other tech vendors to build local and regional Wi-Fi networks. Some 13 pilots are underway, according to Intel, with 100 more expected over the next year.

Also on this side is another pending Congressional bill, S. 1294, this one from U.S. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey), which allows municipalities to build local networks. (To read the text of any of the bills referenced here, you can search for them onthe Thomas site.)

The fight seems to be shaping up as follows: in places like Alexandria, Va., and Jamestown, NY, which plan limited and fairly modest Wi-Fi installations to do things like turn local cafes into hotspots, the telecom industry isn't bothering to interfere. But now that huge cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Chicago have jumped into the fray, the telecom industry is up in arms.

In mid-August, San Francisco announced its ambitious TechConnect plan. It involves providing low-cost WiFi to all comers, as well as selling hardware, software, and training to everyone who wants it. Among about a dozen others, Google is bidding to be the primary telecom provider in the city.

Communities that have already built their networks have run into some problems. The CEO of Azulstar Networks, the Wi-Fi provider in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, told a recent industry gathering that there are some remaining issues, including mobility, security, and interoperability.

Indeed, some observers wonder if all these efforts will wind up as a morass of 1,000 standalone city networks that cannot interoperate. (There's a technology solution coming for this, but not for at least five years, according to Gartner.) Also, at least one report, from the New Millennium Research Council, says that city promises notwithstanding, public money will at some point be needed to pay for network development and expansion.

Of course there will be bumps along the way, but cities need to be free to decide what works for them and their citizens. Orlando, Fla., wound up shuttering its free Wi-Fi service because not enough people were using it, according to published reports. Only 27 people used the downtown service, not nearly enough to justify the $1,800 monthly expense.

But overall, most cities are finding that Wi-Fi works or at least is worth exploring. In Rio Rancho, the setup provides city services, allows safety workers like police and firefighters access to up-to-date maps or EMTs to access updated health information, and provides a lower-cost Internet alternative to citizens. Corpus Christi, Texas, is deploying Wi-Fi to do things like allow building inspectors to update permit data to a wireless device.

Cities are different from each other, and they will need to explore different financial arrangements. Just about all will need to partner with vendors; in Rio Rancho, the city gets a portion of the revenue and that percentage increases as the number of subscribers grows. In Iowa, a nonprofit organization is setting up mesh networks in three cities--Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, and Coralville.

Point is, different variations will work for different places. Cities need to have the flexibility to try whatever they and their citizens decide is worth pursuing, without interference from Congress or any other group.

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