March 23, 2006
 

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Posted: 12.04

Is Your Town Hot Or Not?

Ambitious mayors draw up plans to unwire their entire municipalities.
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By Kerrie Mitchell




If some cities have their way, the near-future of America the beautiful will bring Wi-Fi hot zones from sea to shining sea. As more Internet users look for freedom from their wires, municipal governments across the country are touting the potential economic and social benefits of neighborhoods gone wireless.

Grand Haven, Mich., Hermosa Beach, Calif., and Philadelphia have all taken the Wi-Fi plunge, with city-wide networks in various stages of development. Here’s a look at where their efforts stand:

Grand Haven

Tyler van Houwelingen, the CEO of Michigan ISP Ottawa Wireless, needed the perfect testing ground for his model of a city-wide Wi-Fi network. Naturally then, he turned to his hometown of Grand Haven on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. In early 2003, Ottawa Wireless reached an agreement with the city council that gave the company permission to set up Wi-Fi antennas on telephone poles and other municipal structures, in exchange for a franchise fee. Installation began in late summer of that year, and what followed was eight months of grappling with the quirks of Grand Haven’s topography, from the thick woods that blocked line-of-sight to the literal dead zone over the local cemetery. “If it’s a 1-square-mile city, everyone’s going to think, ‘OK, you can cover that pretty easily,’” says van Houwelingen. “But once you start getting into a little bit bigger city—7 square miles, 12,000 residents, with lots of dense foliage and some hills—it’s really a challenging place.”

Grand Haven Mayor Roger Bergman was one of the network’s early guinea pigs. “[The service] wasn’t reliable at first because of the learning curve,” he says. “But my wireless is on now all the time. Which is slick.”
Ottawa Wireless’ efforts culminated with Grand Haven’s July 2004 claim-to-fame as the first town in the United States with a complete Wi-Fi network. Unlike other cities’ proposed plans, the service was funded entirely by Ottawa Wireless and isn’t free—new users can sign up with Ottawa for a base fee of $19.95 a month for a 256Kbps home wireless connection, with fees increasing for added speed and mobility. van Houwelingen estimates that 500 users have signed up in the first few months. “Most people think of Wi-Fi as mobility and portability,” says van Houwelingen. “But people don’t realize you can actually supplant DSL and cable. Once you cover a whole city, you have connectivity everywhere.”

Hermosa Beach

Hermosa Beach Councilman Michael Keegan believes in the power of free and open Internet access, and he’s willing to put his town’s money where his mouth is. “It’s the democratic thing to do,” he says. “We’re providing the streets and you bring your car, which is your computer.” The councilman was the driving force behind his town’s Wi-Fi initiative, which came to fruition this October, when the South Bay beach town, pop. 21,000, officially launched the final phase of its city-wide network. Unlike Grand Haven’s, Hermosa Beach’s network was financed with public money. While that might make the service more spare than a private ISP’s, it allows for something guaranteed to attract attention: Free wireless Internet access to anyone in Hermosa Beach with a wireless card and enough know-how to log on.

Two years ago, after noticing how inexpensive routers had become, Keegan set up a free wireless network in the local bakery he owns. Impressed with the reliability and popularity of the service, he suggested a city-wide network to Hermosa Beach’s city council. The council agreed to a pilot program that would cover 35 percent of the town, and this May selected local systems integrator LA Unplugged to both design the network and maintain it once it was live. “We tried to do this at an extremely low cost,” says Eric Black, president of LA Unplugged. “That was a huge challenge, but we wanted this to be practical for other communities.” Keegan estimates that Hermosa Beach could spend $100,000 to $120,000 to cover the entire city, and that future monthly maintenance and usage fees could be in the neighborhood of $5,000 per month.

The government offsets some of the monthly costs by selling ads on the login Web page, and Keegan notes that wireless access for municipal employees is expected to save the city money in numerous ways—he envisions building inspectors who can print inspection reports right in their cars, or water meters that can be read remotely instead of during house-to-house visits. Keegan has high hopes that the city will ultimately break even.

Philadelphia

If Grand Haven and Hermosa Beach’s Wi-Fi networks seem ambitious, they will be a mere prelude to what the city of Philadelphia has in the works. This August, Mayor John F. Street announced the establishment of a Wireless Philadelphia committee to plan for the installation of a city-wide Wi-Fi network that will cover all of Philly’s 135 square miles and potentially serve each of its 1.5 million residents.

After the successful launch of a pilot network in the city’s Love Park earlier this year, Philadelphia’s Chief Information Officer Dianah Neff and the Wireless committee are moving forward with preparations to unwire the entire city by June 2006 for an estimated price tag of $10 million. “The mayor is committed to having some form of free access for all, most likely in our public areas,” says Neff. Bringing the signal into private homes would most likely cost some sort of fee, since Philly is hoping to offset the estimated $1.5 million annual operating costs of the network. But Philadelphia, like Hermosa Beach, expects that just having a cheap, wireless network will save money on all sorts of municipal services, from public safety to field inspections.

While the network is expected to raise Philly’s profile as a technology center, it also fits in neatly with Mayor Street’s plans for local revitalization. Described by CNN as a “technology buff” (“He loves his gadgets,” laughs Neff.), Street and his administration appear to take the view that universal Internet access can offer an economic boost to depressed Philly neighborhoods. “The mayor understands the fundamental transformational capability of this technology,” says Neff. “We have neighborhoods today that are not served by high-speed data access because there’s not a bottom line ROI for major corporations. But you can’t leave your poor and disadvantaged neighborhoods behind or the city of Philadelphia won’t survive.”•

Kerrie Mitchell has written for Wired, Premiere and Filmmaker magazines.
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