March 26, 2006

City prepares to unleash wireless Internet to close Web access gap

Kyle Stock  /  Post and Courier

The city of Charleston is scheduled to unlock its new wireless Internet grid Friday, unfurling the promise of free, high-speed cyber access to peninsula residents and businesses. The launch marks a bold initiative to empower small businesses and close the so-called digital divide by plugging poor households into the World Wide Web. In tackling the project, the city became a model for other communities nationwide - and bucked the criticism of businesses that said it was interfering with the forces of the free market.

"Ultimately, what drives me is these victories for the little guy, and that's what this is about," said Ernest Andrade, the city economic development worker who first pitched the project and has managed it since a bid request in June.

In September, the city picked a proposal by Widespread Access LLC, a Mount Pleasant-based telecom company, and Charleston-based Evening Post Publishing Co., which owns The Post and Courier and 22 other media outlets. The two companies, operating under the name Access, agreed to invest close to $500,000 to get the system up and running.

When its network launches Friday, Charleston will be one of about 60 cities that have public WiFi. Another 60 are developing networks. But a lot of communities have found out the hard way that such projects are rarely as easy - or as cheap - as they expect. Charleston is no exception. The city originally said the service would be available at the end of 2005. That date was pushed back twice. In recent months, some of the WiFi transmitters came under the scrutiny of the Design Review Board. Late last week, Widespread Access said only 20 percent to 30 percent of peninsula residents would be able to access the new network by Friday's launch.

"It has certainly been a lot more challenging than originally anticipated, and it reinforces my belief that WiFi is not all science, it's art and science," Andrade said. "People need to moderate their expectations."

Getting the grid up and running is just the first of many challenges. WiFi workers, consultants and tech analysts recently discussed a number of potential trouble spots with The Post and Courier.


Casting an uninterrupted blanket, or "cloud," of wireless Internet is more complicated than strategically placing a few antennas in high places. WiFi signals have trouble getting through thick trees and dense walls, especially brick or concrete buildings.

Craig Settles, a California-based consultant who wrote a book on Philadelphia's public WiFi project, said cities often underestimate how hard it is to provide a ubiquitous signal. "It's possible to do, but it's a question of how much you want to spend in doing it," Settles said. "You can always possibly find a spot somewhere that's not going to be covered." Residents who live in weak spots or behind dense walls may require signal-boosting antennas that will cost between $50 and $100.


Jon Kibler, chief technical officer at Advanced Systems Engineering Technology, a Mount Pleasant-based cyber-security firm, had some straightforward advice for those who plan to tap into the city WiFi grid: "I wouldn't do anything on the connection that you wouldn't mind posted on a billboard on I-26."

Kibler said it is close to impossible to fully protect WiFi signals from hackers and identity thieves. And the more secure the connections are, the less easy they are to use. Kibler said there is evidence that computer-savvy criminals are flocking to public WiFi grids.

This is one problem that the city is not trying to overcome. It is using some standard security protocols, but Andrade noted that many public WiFi networks and a huge percentage of private ones are not secure. "By definition, we are saying that the free service is an open network," Andrade said. "People need to understand that with an open network, you should take certain precautions."

Users will have the option of accessing a more secure connection for $20 a month.


The most successful public WiFi grids are surrounded by buzz - the buzz of people talking about them. A lot of cities spend months hosting focus groups to find out what residents want out of the network, and some projects include marketing campaigns to drive usage. Analysts said publicity is particularly important to get the word out among low-income families. Typically, the people who need Internet access the least are the ones who use municipal WiFi the most, according to Settles.

"There is no way you are going to improve or resolve the digital-divide issue if all you do is put up the network and say, 'That's it,' " Settles said. "This whole idea that people in these poor neighborhoods are going to take a bunch of laptops, sit in a park and surf the Web all day is erroneous."

The most successful cities partner with schools, community groups and other nonprofits to collect and distribute donated PCs and develop computer-literacy programs in poor neighborhoods. Andrade has been talking with community groups and hardware companies, but his focus to date has been on getting the grid built. "In theory, it's great to get everybody under the tent, but if we got everyone under the tent, we'd be talking about a rollout a year from now," he said. "So the approach we took was to build it as you would build a road and then go out and see how other people can be a part of it."

Andrade is not too concerned with adoption, based on the number of questions he has been receiving about the project. He said it is one of the most anticipated city initiatives he has seen.

Creative financing

Behind all the wires, transmitters and hardware of every WiFi grid is a financial infrastructure, the maze of business relationships that pay for the network and keep it running smoothly. Municipal moneymen in this country often have been more creative and dextrous in building WiFi grids than the engineers and electricians who physically put them together.

Charleston's arrangement with for-profit companies was vanguard when it was announced, but such coalitions have gained favor with communities that have developed projects recently, including tech-savvy cities such as San Francisco.

The city is not paying a dime to offer its peninsular residents free WiFi. The cost is being shouldered by Widespread Access and Evening Post Publishing. Widespread Access plans to make money on the endeavor by selling faster and more secure connections, and Evening Post will sell ads on the network's home page and generate publicity for The Post and Courier.

Berge Ayvazian, chief strategy officer for Yankee Group, a Boston-based consulting company, said public-private partnerships have become the business model of choice in government WiFi projects. "The Google model has infiltrated, where you have a different means of monetizing the subscriber ... basically allowing different kinds of customers to sell them things" Ayvazian said. "Community newspapers are a perfect model for this."

But what if those business plans don't work, or don't work well enough? What if one of the providing companies goes bankrupt or decides to switch strategies and abandon the project? "The cities aren't probing deeply enough into these questions because they don't want to know," Settles said. "And they're worried that if they ask these kind of questions, then the vendor is going to run. ... At the very least, you have to put in parameters of what happens if the thing fails."

The dynamic can get especially tricky after the grid is built. As traffic increases, a network usually needs to be beefed up quickly, and maintenance is a constant concern. Ayvazian said a lot of companies that bid on municipal WiFi projects underestimate these costs. Yankee Group tells its clients that in the five years after launching a WiFi grid, they should expect to spend as much upgrading and repairing it as they did building it.

Even if Charleston's project is a runaway success, the city will not hold anything tangible at the end of the five-year contract. Widespread Access and Evening Post Publishing, which agreed to offer free access to the network until November 2010, own the grid. But Andrade doesn't see that, or much of anything else, as a potential downside. "We just enable this to happen, and outside of that, we are largely dependent on the contractor to execute," he said. And, he noted, the price of failure to the city will be the same as the cost of success: zero.


* 30: the percent of the peninsula that will have the WiFi signal by Friday.
* 56: citywide WiFi networks running in the U.S.
* 59: cities and countries currently building WiFi grids.
* 250: kilobytes per second - the speed of Charleston's ne WiFi connection.
* $19.99: the monthly cost to get a connection that is more secure and four times faster.