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Mixed Signals

Hartford Business Journal Editorial

July 14, 2008

Three years ago, Mayor Eddie Perez announced an ambitious plan to close the digital divide in Hartford by making free Internet access available to lower-income families. It sounded like such a great idea at the time. Now, it’s quietly being shelved.

According to the plan, broadband wireless fidelity, or WiFi, would be used to as a way to provide Web access to the poor so they, like wealthier suburbanites, would have quick and easy access to information about jobs, education and health care. The city was prepared to sell 900 Internet-ready computers for $150 each to jumpstart participation.

Unfortunately, talking up the obviously promising idea turned out to be the easy part. Carrying it through was another matter. The initiative has fallen well short of the mark for a host of real-world reasons, technical, financial and sociological.

A pilot program launched in the fall of 2006 covered two neighborhoods: downtown and Blue Hills. In theory, any desktop computer at a home or any laptop in a park or a coffee shop equipped with a wireless card could connect to the Internet over the municipal network.

The WiFi system uses existing fiber-optic cable lines connected to schools and other large buildings. Wireless routers broadcast a signal from these buildings, and the signal is amplified by transmitters on utility poles.

The pilot program was to cost about $1 million. The rollout to the rest of the city by 2009 was to cost, in total, $5.8 million. Funding for the rollout was supposed to spring from revenues generated by usage fees in the pilot neighborhoods. Residents were allowed 20 hours of free Internet access per month. Beyond that, unlimited hours of access cost $20.

But the target audience – lower-income families – didn’t flock to buy the computers the city was offering at deep discount. Only about 400 of the 900 were sold, and the rest were donated to schools. That obviously undercut usage fees.

Technical glitches arose as well. The city underestimated the number of signal-boosting devices it would need to properly blanket the pilot neighborhoods. Officials were surprised to learn that signal strength in the leafless late fall of 2006 deteriorated when the leaves came in the following spring. That meant more boosters, and more money.

A number of cities have taken a stab at launching municipal WiFi systems. Most of them have failed to reach their lofty goals. Experts who track wireless initiatives by municipalities – there are hundreds of systems at various stages across the country – say success depends on a sound business model. They note that it is critically important for a city to nail down anchor users — such as major institutions — to guarantee the financial viability of any project.

Before expanding its WiFi into new neighborhoods, Hartford must establish a reliable revenue stream there. One way to do so is to provide a competitively priced WiFi option that attracts hospitals and businesses as paying customers.

It’s important to target neighborhoods with care. Certain wealthier neighborhoods are dominated by the computer-savvy, who tend to see a new municipal WiFi system as redundant to their existing set-ups.

Perez was absolutely right to try to address the fact that many Hartford households lack access to the information highway. But the “Field of Dreams” approach – “Build it, and they will come” – isn’t good enough. Good intentions don’t translate into effective execution.

The city should learn from its missteps by carefully studying the municipal WiFi systems that work – and the ones that have failed – and make another run at it.The city needs to develop a plan that puts the program on a more sound financial footing by signing up paying customers ahead of time.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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