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Chicago spreads welcome mat for citywide Wi-Fi

October 2, 2006
By Brad Spirrison

Sun-Times Columnist As the mayor prepared to announce his pitch for Washington Park as the setting for the 2016 Olympic opening ceremonies, Chicago's Department of Business and Information Services less dramatically released its request for proposals to install a citywide broadband wireless Internet network.

The RFP, which can be downloaded at cityofchicago.org/wirelessrfp, is targeted to respondents capable of building an affordable and easily accessible wireless Internet network that blankets at least 90 percent of the city. The minimum connection speed is one megabit per second, and the company (or consortium of companies) that wins the bid will completely finance and own the network. The winner will be responsible for maintenance and technical upgrades.

In exchange, the city would grant nonexclusive access to infrastructure, including street light poles and traffic signal poles that are useful in building a network. There will be no access to the city's valuable optical fiber, however.

City Hall is looking for "creative pricing models," where the network provider will offer free or low-cost service to poorer areas in an effort to bridge the digital divide. Service also can be at least partially subsidized by advertising. Proposals are due Jan. 2, 2007. The city is looking to sign a 10-year contract with opportunities for renewal.


Seeking innovative ideas

Ashley Austin, 19, surfs the web via a citywide free Wi-Fi network while working on a college paper in St. Cloud, Fla.. Chicago's Department of Business and Information Services recently released proposals to install a broadband wireless Internet network in the city.
(Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

"We want people to be innovative in bringing business models to us," said Hardik Bhatt, Chicago's chief information officer. "We are not advocating any particular type of business model."

Bhatt's openness to new ideas could reflect the difficulty finding business models for wireless Internet that accommodate a municipality while still being economically viable for the network provider.

Even Google, which in August completed installation of a wireless network in its hometown of Mountain View, Calif., is pressing the refresh button on plans beyond San Francisco and is encountering community resistance in its efforts to build an advertising-based Wi-Fi network.

"It is not economically efficient to do what we are doing in lots of other cities," said Minnie Ingersoll, product manager of Google Wi-Fi. "Our goal from the beginning was to do community outreach."

Ingersoll reiterated that Google Wi-Fi has no plans to bid for Chicago at this time. The Zelig-like search engine is partnering on its San Francisco proposal with Atlanta-based Earthlink, which also has won bids in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Anaheim. AT&T is building its first municipal Wi-Fi network in Downstate Springfield. Cisco, IBM and Tropos Networks are among the most active companies landing municipal Wi-Fi contracts nationwide.

In November 2000, the city sought proposals for the highly ambitious CivicNet initiative. Ultimately unrealized, CivicNet asked respondents to bid for the right to develop an optical fiber-based network that connected more than 1,500 city-owned facilities that would reach every Chicago neighborhood.

Conceived during the heady days of the late 1990s to "create a new communications structure throughout the city for the Internet age," CivicNet never materialized due in part to a tanking economy and rapidly reduced costs for Internet services. It costs considerably less to deploy wireless Internet access compared to optical fiber, although Wi-Fi service is likely slower and less reliable.

"I think CivicNet was a great idea, but the technology has changed," Bhatt said. "Instead of wiring, we are [now] talking about wireless. We want to make sure the technology we are putting in is for the long term."


Dissenting opinions

While the intent to provide affordable, higher-speed Internet access to everyone is almost universally admired, to some, public-private partnerships are not the right solution.

"While the granting of exclusive franchises is not as egregious as a municipality using taxpayer dollars to compete head-to-head with the private enterprises they tax and regulate, it is still a questionable role for local government," noted a report earlier this year from the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank.

In addition to the RFP, $250,000 in grants have been allocated to community groups offering innovative ways to bridge the digital divide.

Any city, particularly one seeking to raise its profile on the global stage, should embrace reasonable efforts to digitally connect all of its communities. The cultural and commercial conversation, like it or not, digitizes by the day. It is unethical and impractical to encumber access to broadband.

"There is a tremendous opportunity for economic growth and deployment once you have this in place," said Bhatt.

When and how universal access is deployed are the questions today.


Original Story: http://www.suntimes.com/business/spirrison/79567,CST-FIN-Spirr02.article
Brad Spirrison is a local technology reporter and president of MidwestBusiness.com.