[Chtechcomm] Wifi signals slowly spreading across Triangle

Terri Buckner tbuckner at ibiblio.org
Thu Oct 13 12:28:48 EDT 2005

Wifi signals slowly spreading across Triangle

Cities ponder free wireless access

B Y F I O N A   M O R G A N

It's campaign season again, and there's a new issue in town: public 
wireless Internet access. Raleigh has incorporated free wireless into 
its Fayetteville Street plan. Cary appointed a committee to study the 
issue and decided only to publish a list of local businesses that offer 
the plan. The Indy has tried to keep the issue alive by including it in 
our own candidate questionnaires. And it's also been an issue in 
candidate forums, nowhere more than in Chapel Hill.

Amid thoughtful discussion of the usual complex issues, like stormwater 
and land use planning, candidates for Chapel Hill Town Council are 
discussing the pros and cons of public broadband access. Will Raymond, a 
member of the town's technology advisory board, has long been a 
proponent. Fellow candidate Laurin Easthom made support for wireless 
part of her platform right out of the gate. Incumbents Mark Kleinschmidt 
and Ed Harrison are vocal supporters, as are challengers Jason Baker and 
Bill Thorpe. Mayor Foy says he needs to know more before he can offer 
his support.

There are some basic questions to answer: Would this system be run by 
the town as a utility, or by a private company? Who would it be designed 
to serve? How much would it cost? How would the town pay for it?

The town tech board is working on a proposal that would answer those 
questions, which they hope to bring to the council by the start of the 
next term. "We're handling this with the most extreme care," says tech 
board member (and non-candidate) Uzoma Nwosu, "because we'd rather do it 
right than do it again."

Lots of other cities are offering wireless around the country--and in 
North Carolina. The Johnston County town of Clayton, population 12,000, 
plans to blanket the town with hotspots that would allow anyone to go 
online for free for 30-minute increments. Right next door to Chapel 
Hill, the town of Carrboro offers free wireless broadband access in the 
downtown district around Weaver Street Market. But none of the 
Triangle's free wifi offerings are designed to be residents' primary 
Internet service.

Chapel Hill has grander ambitions, Nwosu says. Any program it undertakes 
would go way beyond the coffee shop laptop crowd on Franklin Street. The 
board is looking at low-cost ways to offering access to every citizen by 
blanketing neighborhoods, especially those whose residents have lower 
incomes and are less likely to be broadband subscribers. And if you're 
going to serve everyone in town, that means serving many 
college-educated, tech-savvy professionals. "They have computers, 
wifi-enabled PDAs--you name it, they're running it. Their uses and needs 
might exceed what these other towns are offering," Nwosu says.

Most exciting, he says, is the opportunity to reach across the digital 
divide. "How can we help the school system reach out to under-served 
neighborhoods, to get to those houses where children don't have 
computers or Internet access plugged into the technology age? It's one 
of my personal goals in this committee, to make that happen."

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system already has a program in place 
that provides refurbished computers to students who otherwise wouldn't 
have them. Ray Reitz, the school system's chief technology officer, says 
he's excited about the prospect of a wireless program that could get 
those kids online. "The schools are very interested in finding ways to 
offer access to our under-served communities," he says. "We're 
interested in working with the town in any way we can to make this happen."

He knows that cost, organization and management, and to a lesser extent 
security, need to be ironed out. Nwosu adds another to the list: 
constantly changing technology. WiFi, the current technology, is cheap 
but covers only small areas (10 miles at best). The next generation, 
WiMax, is much more expensive but covers much more ground (up to 30 
miles). Going ahead with a WiFi system now, he says, "is like us giving 
everybody a VHS system when everyone's using DVDs."

But excitement over the plan is growing, Nwosu says. "I sense urgency to 
get it done now, so that at least the options are on the table and when 
the new people come that it would be an item of business for them to act 
on. We want this to happen. And I tell ya, it's only a small piece of 
the vision of digital government that we've been pushing all along."

There's another incentive to get it done quickly--it's not just 
technology that's changing. So is the law.

Several states have already passed or barely defeated initiatives to 
prevent towns and cities from implementing plans like the one Chapel 
Hill is looking into. In North Carolina, no such legal barrier exists so 
far. But telecom and cable industry lobbyists have been working hard to 
keep their lock on broadband service.

The city everyone has an eye on is Philadelphia, where, after years of 
highly successful charter projects in inner-city neighborhoods, the city 
made a decision to implement low-cost wireless broadband access 
continually around the city. That meant standing up to some very angry 
telecom companies, which already have a monopoly in phone and cable 
service in Philly. Earthlink is expected to win the Philly contract, and 
subscriptions will cost $20 per month, half that for low-income 
residents, with continuous coverage throughout the city.

In San Francisco, Google wants to provide a citywide wireless broadband 
system that would challenge cable and telecom monopolies there. 
Municipal wireless is a way for new players to inject some real 
competition into the otherwise monopolized world of telecom services.

At the federal level, there are a few bills floating around, some good 
and some bad. Rep. Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas (naturally) 
and former telecom executive (yep), is sponsoring a revision to the 1996 
Telecommunications Act that, among other things, would prohibit state 
and local governments from providing Internet service if a private 
provider already does. Meanwhile, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Frank 
Lautenberg (D-N.J.) have introduced the Community Broadband Act of 2005, 
a good bill that would override any state laws restricting municipal 
broadband. "This is the best bill to support at the federal level," says 
Craig Aaron of Free Press, a media reform activist group. "It's very 
clear-cut. It would free up local communities to figure out what's best 
for themselves." (Oddly, McCain has also backed the Sessions bill; 
presumably there's enough in it he likes that he's willing to hold his 
nose and deal with the muni issue in a separate piece of legislation. 
Just can't figure that guy out.)

If you like that idea, call Liddy Dole (202-224-6342) and Richard Burr 
(202-224-3154) and ask them to back S. 1294, the Community Broadband 
Act. Quick, before Verizon gets to them.

More information about the Chtechcomm mailing list