'Lily Pad' Hotspots Cover Cincinnati With Free Wi-Fi

More than 20 "pods," each with numerous hot-spots and still more access points, are already up and running. At least 55 more are slated to be online in the coming weeks.

As municipalities across the U.S. struggle to develop business plans to offer low-cost broadband Wi-Fi to their citizens, a unique partnership in the city of Cincinnati has begun to deliver Wi-Fi that is not only free of cost, but also free of pop-up and banner ads.

Called Lily Pad, the partnership combines efforts from the City of Cincinnati, Time Warner Cable, and the Lily Pad non-profit organization. The endeavor has already resulted in the establishment of more than 20 Lily Pads or "pods," each with numerous hotspots and still more access points. Another 55 or more are slated to be established in the coming weeks.

"We looked at other national (Wi-Fi) attempts," said Ryan Rybolt, a businessman who co-founded Lily Pad. "We thought other approaches were too expensive and we didn't want to ask for taxpayer or city money."

Following a model popular on many U.S. highways -- the "Adopt A Highway" program -- the Lily Pad group enlisted volunteers and designed a system that called for small donations to sponsor individual hotspots for three years. "A family might sponsor a community square for $150 a month," said Rybold, "or a larger area for $500."

With more than 1.9 million inhabitants and a geographical area covering nearly 80-square-miles, the program won't cover every square inch of Cincinnati, but all regions of the city will have some coverage and no citizen will be too distant from free Wi-Fi access. Already, one five-block area in downtown Cincinnati is covered, and one huge hotspot covering the city's entire Ohio River waterfront as well as Kentucky cities Covington and Newport are in the process of being installed.

In an example of the philanthropic nature of Lily Pad, Time Warner Cable is serving as the sponsor of the riverfront hotspot.

Rybolt said he initially suspected the city's established broadband providers would resist the program, but he found Time Warner Cable was receptive to the idea. "We knew suppliers still had to get paid," said Rybolt.

Rob Howard, a Time Warner Cable representative, said the firm's Road Runner Business Class engineers have been building an infrastructure in which users could access their e-mail and surf the Web, but without all the broadband services they're accustomed to at home and at work.

For instance, although the Wi-Fi speeds peak at 5 Mbps, the Lily Pad speed degrades somewhat as additional users get online. Also, users are disconnected if their connection has been unused for more than 10 minutes.

Users need neither a user name nor a password to access the Lily Pad system -- they just need to go through a usage agreement page. Then they are free to view e-mails and surf the Web, unencumbered by pop-ups or banner ads. The system also filters viruses and spam.

"Lily Pad does not receive money from city, state, or federal governments," said Rybolt. "This is by design, as legislative efforts by the telecom industry have derailed efforts in other states and cities that have been using municipal funds to pay for Wi-Fi."

The project is an effort within a broader program called "Give Back Cincinnati," a non-profit organization with support also from the Cincinnati Regional Chamber of Commerce. "This is 100-percent volunteer," said Rybolt, who is an e-commerce businessman."(We use) a non-profit entity to identify and manage corporate and individual sponsorships.

"There's no need to light up an entire city block of commercial warehousing or a field of corn. Lily Pad is not citywide Wi-Fi. It's planting pods of access points in key social spaces, both indoor and outdoor."

"We could have hundreds of hotspots."

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