October 27, 2006
By DANIEL E. GOREN, Courant Staff Writer
From a bench in Bushnell Park, or a spot overlooking the Connecticut River, or from the living room of a house in Blue Hills, Hartford residents can now access the Internet through a wireless - and free - municipal network.
Mayor Eddie A. Perez plans to announce today the launch of a $1 million pilot program to test the service, along with a push by the city to sell inexpensive computers to residents.
Even in its limited trial phase in the downtown and Blue Hills areas, the network is the most extensive of its kind in New England, experts say. It is designed to help Hartford's lower-income families take advantage of the cyber world, offering access to information on education, health care and jobs.
"Hartford is on the wrong side of the digital divide," Perez said. "We all know that in employment today, jobs continue to be tied into the Internet. So many jobs require online access, both to find out about them and to get access to them."
Only 25 percent of Hartford households have a working computer with Internet access, compared with more than 70 percent of residents in the suburbs, according to the mayor's staff. To try to close that gap, the city has developed, with the assistance of IBM, the broadband wireless network, which uses a technology called Wi-Fi, meaning wireless fidelity.
The city's plan is to allow free unlimited access to the network for the first few months. But starting in March, only the first 20 hours of access per household will be free; after that, residents will have to buy unlimited access for $12 to $17 a month. The cost, city officials said, is still lower than most commercially sold broadband services.
Commuters who work in Hartford will not get the free service, but can buy into the system at the same rate as residents. The city is also considering selling a day pass for visitors or others.
In the pilot phase, which was months in the planning and is expected to last about a year, the service will be provided to two neighborhoods: Blue Hills and downtown. The two areas include populations that the city wants to harness to make the network a financial and political success - residents and small businesses needing inexpensive Internet access, and commuters who work downtown.
"If we can make it work in these two neighborhoods, then we can make it work throughout the city," said Matt Hennessy, the mayor's chief of staff.
Perez said he hopes to expand the network to the entire city within three years, using revenue from the pilot program to pay for part of the cost of the expansion. All told, the citywide network is expected to cost the city $5.8 million, though the city hopes to offset part of that through revenue generated by the network, including advertisements.
The network, however, may not be without its detractors.
In almost every state where a city or town has tried to build a municipal wireless network, the effort has been met with lobbying and legal fights from private cable and telecommunications companies that view the service as a threat, said Esme Vos, the founder of MuniWireless.com, a website that tracks the construction of municipal wireless services.
If the companies can't influence state lawmakers to curb municipal networks, they often end up suing, Vos said. More than 300 publicly operated networks nationwide are either up and running or in the planning phase.
"It has happened in other places, and I'm not sure why Hartford would be exempt from that," Vos said.
One of the largest battles, which set the stage for many like it nationwide, was waged in Philadelphia in 2004, when Verizon engaged in a bitter legislative fight to limit city-run wireless networks in Pennsylvania, Vos said. A compromise was eventually reached.
That same year, in Connecticut, the town of Manchester tried to offer free wireless in its downtown, but SBC Connecticut objected, saying the town was acting as a telecommunications company. The state's Department of Public Utility Control later ruled in favor of Manchester and allowed the program to continue.
Perez said Hartford is "open to private participation," allowing companies to piggyback on the municipal network to offer the service at a lower price.
"The city's focus is on providing the free portion," Hennessy said. "When it comes to the paid portion, we have had discussions about a wholesale model where the Comcasts and Earthlinks of the world could come in and ride on our system and provide options to people at a wholesale price. ... In no way are we locking them out. There is ample opportunity for them to come on the system and compete amongst each other at a lower cost."
At least one company says it is intrigued by the idea of participating with the city. Seth Bloom, spokesman for AT&T Connecticut, said that private-public partnerships on municipal wireless networks present a new business opportunity for the company.
"We agree, there are ways for the public sector and private sector to work together, and we are not opposed to working toward that end," Bloom said. "It is a constantly evolving industry; there is a lot of competition and technology changes over time. We are hopeful that we will be actively playing a role as this initiative plays out in Hartford."
The wireless network takes advantage of fiber-optic cables that the city has already laid under its streets and connected to every school, firehouse and police station. From these buildings, a signal is broadcast using wireless routers and amplified by transmitters that have been placed on light poles.
During the pilot phases, the network will serve about 5,000 homes and 75,000 people, including more than 50,000 commuters who work downtown, city officials said.
Part of the city's effort includes the sale of 900 refurbished computers - a maximum of one per household at a cost of $150 each on a first come, first served basis - that are ready for wireless use.
To get a computer, residents in Blue Hills and downtown are being asked to call the city's 311 information line to register for a 45-minute training session on how to connect to the system.
To access a wireless Internet service, a computer must be equipped with wireless technology.
In the target area, the city system - which is already up and running - will appear as one of the networks available.
As the city expands the network, it plans to make additional computers available. The city also plans to offer more in-depth classes on computer use at the public libraries.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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