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Citywide WiFi Plan Shelved

Technical problems, lack of revenue stall project Perez once promoted

By Jason Millman

July 14, 2008

Nearly three years after Mayor Eddie Perez promised with fanfare to provide free wireless Internet access citywide by 2009, city officials have quietly tabled the plan.

A pilot program launched in October 2006 in Blue Hills and several downtown hotspots ran into technical problems and generated less response than expected.

Now, city officials say they have abandoned the mayor’s proposed $5.8 million plan to cover the entire city and will focus instead on stabilizing existing municipal wireless service.

Should the city look to expand wireless access in the future, it will only do so in certain hotspots and not entire neighborhoods, said public information officer Eric Jackson.

“The technology is really not ready to provide pervasive wireless connectivity through walls and into homes without a lot of supplemental [equipment] that the user has to buy,” Jackson said. “No one’s come up with an economic model that will absolutely sustain it. Basically, people don’t want to pay for it.”

Through a spokesman, Perez declined to be interviewed for this article. The mayor had touted the initiative as an important economic tool that would bridge the “digital divide” in Hartford by providing cheap, easy Internet access to lower-income families. The mayor’s office estimated that two-thirds of Hartford residents lacked an Internet connection at the time the initiative was announced.

The city purchased 900 low-cost Internet-ready computers to sell to Blue Hills residents, but only about 400 sold at $150 each. The rest were donated to schools, Jackson said.

In addition, residents of Blue Hills are continuing to experience problems accessing the Internet. The system relies on fiber-optic cable that connects to wireless routers in the neighborhood that transmit signals, which are boosted by devices on utility poles.

In late October 2006, 50 wireless nodes were placed around the neighborhood. But when leaves blossomed the following spring, the city was forced to install 15 more wireless nodes.

Since the pilot program ended last summer at 10 percent over its $1 million budget, the city has provided Internet access for free. It is working to develop a new plan to charge people for using the service.

20 Hours Free

The original plan called for the city to provide the first 20 hours of Internet usage per month for free to each account and to charge $20 a month for unlimited access after that. That meant the city might run into competition from commercial providers offering cheaper service.

When Perez announced the plan, he said citywide Internet would help Hartford’s poorest residents gain more access to information about job opportunities.

In order to keep tabs on usage patterns, the city keeps a log of Web sites visited on the network. But Jackson said they city does not have the funding needed to monitor Web access closely.

He suggested residents may be using their Internet connections for less ambitious purposes than job hunting. “I think what we’d see is it’s probably used a lot for entertainment,” Jackson said. “I’ll put it that way.”

As Hartford backs away from its plan to provide citywide wireless, other cities that had similar goals are also coming to realize their expectations were too lofty from the start. Many are running into similar technical issues and funding problems.

Milwaukee abandoned plans last month to blanket the city with wireless after the company it contracted to build the network dropped out. The company couldn’t get the city or other major organizations to become anchor tenants on the system to ensure profitability.

Portland, Ore. also pulled the plug on its wireless network last week when the Internet provider failed to get the advertising revenue it needed to sustain the system.

Philly’s Success

Philadelphia successfully covered 80 percent of the city with a wireless network, but EarthLink, which built the network, threatened to sue to get out of a 10-year contract because it said it was losing $200,000 each month. The system seems to be back on track after a group of local investors purchased the existing network last month and will look to sign up businesses to their service.

Esme Vos, founder of Muniwireless.com, which tracks wireless initiatives across the country, said the Philadelphia investors are using a wise strategy by trying to attract big accounts to purchase their service.

“When they’re going after large institutions like hospitals and colleges, they’re going to get a definitive return on their investment,” Vos said.

The idea of extending wireless to all neighborhoods was a much more ambitious plan than Hartford needed, Vos said. Most middle class families already have Internet access at affordable rates, so they would have little incentive to sign up for the city’s wireless service.

“You don’t have to do it citywide,” Vos said. “You can do it where people need cheap Internet access. Start there and figure it out if it works.”

While the technology is available to make all of Hartford wireless, the city’s business model was flawed from the start, according to John Cooper, a Dallas-based metropolitan broadband network consultant.

Initially, Hartford was counting on the $20-a-month service plan in existing wireless areas to help pay to build the rest of the system, but the city has stopped charging for network access. Cooper said Hartford should have signed up major accounts for their service beforehand to make sure the money was there to complete it.

‘Field Of Dreams’

“In a lot of cities, you see a failed business model,” Cooper said. “It’s the ‘Field of Dreams’ model — if you build it, they will come.”

Jackson said Hartford never approached colleges or other institutions to join the network because the network was viewed primarily as a way to bring connectivity to residents who lacked Internet access. “It was never really targeted toward business or academic institutions as end-users because they typically have their own networks.”

Oklahoma City has successfully installed wireless across the entire city, but it is only used for municipal purposes, including the police and fire departments.

In Hartford, the city’s public works employees already use the city’s wireless for licensing and inspection purposes. Jackson said the police and fire departments have requested wireless, but they’d have to be on a separate, secure network, which would cost the city more money.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Business Journal. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Business Journal Archives at http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/archives.php.
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