Hartford's big wireless project -- announced with fanfare and free computers over two years ago -- has stalled
By DANIEL D'AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer
March 18, 2008
Nearly two and a half years ago, in November 2005, Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez announced the city would set up a free wireless network downtown and in Blue Hills as a pilot for what would eventually be citywide wireless access to the Internet. Once the project moved out of its pilot phase, users would be charged a modest fee of around $15 per month.
Perez anticipated having the network up and running by the summer of 2006. With wireless computers in only about 25 percent of Hartford households — as opposed to some 70 percent of suburban households — Perez wanted to close the “digital divide” that was disadvantaging city residents in a world that increasingly relies on Internet access for everything from finding a job to registering your children for school.
“Our goal is to build a free wireless network across our city, provide low-cost computer equipment to our residents, and train them in the basics of computer and Web usage,” wrote Perez in a Jan.9, 2006 editorial in the Hartford Courant.
The plan was to roll out the network into the city’s other neighborhoods over the two years following the launch of the pilot downtown and in Blue Hills. That would mean the citywide network would be in place by this summer.
It won’t be. The network did launch in October 2006, a few months late, but has never gotten out of its pilot phase and has never reached beyond parts of downtown and Blue Hills. The city has spent about $800,000 on Wireless Hartford so far, partnering with IBM for the initial phase of the project.
“The expansion phase of Wireless Hartford is on hold as we work to improve the connectivity, which was excellent outdoors, but not as successful as we had hoped penetrating into buildings,” wrote Sarah Barr, Perez’s director of communications, in an e-mail last week. “We are going to wait for the technology to ‘catch up’ before moving forward in this direction.”
In the meantime, said Barr, the city will create new “[Wi-Fi] hotspots” where people are “known to congregate and are likely to use the technology.” That’s supposed to happen this summer around the city. The city might also create partnerships with building owners downtown to improve connectivity. Barr said the anticipated expansion will have a direct impact on city workers.
“This will also enable our city field workers, more and more of whom are employing wireless technology, to use [Wi-Fi] instead of expensive cellular cards to connect to city databases,” wrote Barr.
Barr said the existing service will be free for the “indefinite future,” even though Perez anticipated in the fall of 2006 that the network would be free for only the first few months, and that starting in March 2007 residents would have to pay $12 to $17 per month for unlimited access.
Jane Macy-Painter, daughter of former city councilman Bob Painter, has been enjoying free wireless access in her home on Buckingham Street since the launch of the network. She lives a block from the intersection of Main and Capitol avenues.
“We always have a totally fine signal, we’ve never had a problem,” said Macy-Painter.
She said she uses the service every day, and can sign on without a password. But she doesn’t understand why the network, which shows up as one of several options for wireless service, is not identified as Hartford’s free service, but only as “linksys_SES_49400.”
“It’s kind of unfortunate because people don’t even know they’re on it,” said Macy-Painter. “I’d think they’d want to advertise it.”
Hartford’s chief information officer, Eric Jackson, who is responsible for running the network, didn’t return a call for comment.
Not far from Macy-Painter, longtime Hartford architect Allen Ambrose has had firsthand experience with the network’s inability to penetrate buildings. Ambrose lives on the 12th floor of the upscale Bushnell On The Park apartment building, and said that when the network first launched he couldn’t get it to come up on his laptop.
“I think I got it once after a while, then I tried to fill [the registration page] out, but access was so slow I gave up,” said Ambrose. “At the time I attributed it to the fact that I was outside the area where cell phone towers were able to reach.”
Ambrose has wireless Internet service in his apartment now, but only because New Haven-based Spot On Networks installed wireless transmitters on each floor of the building. Now Ambrose pays about $15 a month for wireless service, which solved a big problem for him since he doesn’t use a land line telephone.
“I just use my cell phone, but I had to have a land line to use DSL,” said Ambrose. “With Spot On I don’t have to [have a land line].”
Hartford is certainly not alone in struggling with getting its wireless service off the ground. In a recent issue, Wired magazine published a two-page spread with a map of the United States showing where wireless networks are in operation, under construction, in the early stage of development, under consideration, or dead or on hold. Hartford shows up as in operation, which is certainly debatable. Atlanta, Washington D.C., Miami-Dade County, Houston, Chicago and Sacramento show up as dead or on hold.
Across the Sound, officials in Suffolk and Nassau counties on Long Island were planning the most ambitious municipal wireless project in the country, covering 750 square miles at an estimated cost of $105 million, according to Muniwireless.com.
The counties signed up with Tampa-based E-Path Communications, which was supposed to have two pilot locations set up by last December. E-Path also promised to create the network without using taxpayer dollars, using advertising to fund it, according to a story in Long Island Business News. None of it has happened.
An official with E-Path, which turned out to be a four-man operation that had never created a municipal wireless network, told LIBN the company didn’t have the money to cover the costs of creating the network.
Even the poster child of municipal wireless networks, Philadelphia, recently ran aground when Atlanta-based EarthLink, the leading provider of municipal networks up until now, announced it was getting out of the business.
Philadelphia’s municipal Wi-Fi network is the largest in the country, covering 135 square miles, and is 80 percent complete, but EarthLink has put the whole thing up for sale, effectively stalling any further progress.
While EarthLink has refused to reveal how many subscribers it has in Philadelphia, Barr said Hartford has 9,000 subscribers to its still-free pilot network. She said the city has also been “very successful” in delivering low-cost computers to residents who requested them, and also received training.
The city had provided nearly 300 refurbished computers to residents for $150 as of last summer, and is still offering training at the city library. But the free computers have run out.
If you are in the wireless hotspots that are working you can see if you can register with Hartford’s service by going to the city’s Web site at www.hartford.gov and choosing “Wireless Hartford” from the “Select a Service” menu in the left column.
Given the chaotic state of municipal wireless networks around the country, it would be tempting to say Hartford isn’t doing so badly. But the city isn’t exactly burning up the wireless air waves either, and former city councilman Bob Painter sees a familiar pattern in the slowly lurching progress of the program.
“Unfortunately, as with many of the mayor’s awfully good projects, he gets excited on launching it but then there aren’t enough resources or people to make sure it continues on,” said Painter.