News: Banning City-Sponsored Wi-Fi

Pro-business bills would bar cities from offering service

Stephen Novotni

Krohn Conservatory now has a Wi-Fi hotspot, providing high speed access to the Internet.

What if you could tap into the Internet for free from anywhere? What if all your phone calls from your mobile phone or from your land line could be routed through that Internet connection? What if you could pick up cable television in the same way?

These are all current realities or are soon to be. But now several pieces of legislation are in the works, aimed at snuffing the digital Perestroika.

Free wireless Internet — known as Wi-Fi, for "wireless fidelity" — is now available at hundreds of locations around Cincinnati. Many local coffee shops, bistros and even some parks offer the service.

Some hotspots are private connections; business owners pay for the connection to the Internet and operate a hotspot for patrons. Others are operated as community networks, delivering low-cost or free Internet to locals.

There are also pay-per-use hotspots operated by telecommunications companies, such as Cincinnati Bell's Wi-Fi on Fountain Square, which costs about $5 an hour.

Municipalities can also offer the service and, in doing so, make urban areas more attractive to businesses and professionals.

Cincinnati offers free municipal wireless at three local parks, thanks to donated Internet connections from Good News Internet Service.

"It's added value to the experience at the parks," says Willie Cardin Jr., director of Cincinnati Parks.

Eden Park's Krohn Conservatory, the Theodore M. Berry International Friendship Park and Piatt Park all offer Wi-Fi now, and it's in the works at three other city parks, according to Cardin.

Frank Moore, CEO of Victory Neighborhood Services, is developing a community nonprofit Wi-Fi network (see "Walnut Hills Goes Wi-Fi," issue of Oct. 24-30, 2004). Moore's organization is planning the launch of a Wi-Fi grid that will cover all of Walnut Hills. Starting this fall, residents will get unlimited access to the Web for free. Businesses pay a fee and, in return, will get Wi-Fi for their business and their patrons.

Moore says his organization's goal is to put the Internet in reach of single moms and others who can't afford the service and might lack computer literacy.

"We want them to either be able to work from home or to be able to develop the skills to become employable," Moore says.

Both the Walnut Hills Wi-Fi project and the Cincinnati Park Board's offerings are community development tools. But it's no accident that the Walnut Hills project was set up under a nonprofit corporation rather than as a venture of the city of Cincinnati, according to Eric Kornau, the principal consultant on the project.

"The handwriting's been on the wall for a year, year-and-a-half that the (telecom) carriers were going to view this as a threat," Kornau says.

They're right to see it this way: The Walnut Hills project only has to raise about $10 per user to connect their community to high-speed Internet. Compare that to $30 to $40 a month through the phone and cable companies.

This is where WiMAX comes into the equation. WiMAX, shorthand for "worldwide interoperability for microwave access," is a type of Wi-Fi that's purported to transmit data at 40 mbps — almost four times faster than standard Wi-Fi — and over great distances, up to 31 miles. That is much farther than the 300-ft. maximum range of conventional Wi-Fi.

With the ability to move that volume of data at great distances, WiMAX could end up replacing cellular phone connections, Internet and phone service as well as cable television, according to Sascha Meinrath of the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network, one of the largest cooperative networks in the nation.

Kornau says some of these capabilities are available today. Verizon, a mobile phone service provider, cripples its phone's Internet capabilities so consumers can't use Voice Over IP (VOIP), a telephone service that works through the Internet, Kornau says. Yet, he says, he has a friend who has hacked a Verizon phone so that it'll carry VOIP, and this person can make unlimited local and long distance calls for just the price of the Verizon Internet service on his cell phone.

"If you're trying to meter access to these things, it's kind of like trying to meter access to the sun," Kornau says. "It can't be done."

While private telecom companies haven't found a way to stop community Wi-Fi projects or hackers like Kornau's friend, they are lobbying state and federal legislatures to block municipal Wi-Fi.

As it stands, municipal Wi-Fi is banned in 11 states. Eleven others, including Ohio, have bills pending in their legislatures.

Ohio House Bill 188, introduced in April, would force a municipality that already has two Internet providers — the cable and phone companies — to go through such a lengthy process of public evaluation that it would essentially block any such project before it got off the ground.

Introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in May, House Bill 2726 would block any municipality from offering telecommunications, information or cable services except to remedy market failures by private enterprise.

State Rep. Thom Collier (R-Mount Vernon) says legislation like this is really an attempt to "level the playing field."

Municipal telecom offerings present an unfair challenge to the private marketplace and put local governments in a business in which they have no experience, Collier says. With the way technology becomes obsolete in such a short time period, local municipalities would be setting themselves up for having a storehouse of obsolete equipment in a short time, he says.

"Are (municipalities) building just for now or for the future?" Collier asks.

State Sen. Mark Mallory (D-West End) says he believes the matter is something that should be carefully debated and reviewed before any law is passed.

"I see a real need for community Wi-Fi," Mallory says. "I just think we need to find a fair and balanced way to do this."

Mallory says it's important to work with service providers to find a way that cities can contract for services for the public good. He says time for evaluation of the new technologies is what's needed most of all. ©

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