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Thursday, March 30, 2006 05:25 am

Why not Wi-Fi?

Free or low-cost Internet access should be a no-brainer. In Springfield, it’s a question of politics.

Cities large and small are installing or looking seriously at citywide high-speed Internet networks. Philadelphia and San Francisco are two of the biggest. Closer to home, Chicago says it will solicit proposals, joining dozens of cities that are working with the private sector to build wireless systems at no cost to taxpayers. Aurora plans to have free wireless Internet available citywide by year’s end, which would make that town the first in Illinois to have such a system. Aurora’s system, which would rely on advertisers to pay the bills, would be built by a California company that’s already put large portions of Santa Clara, Calif., and other towns on line for free. In Iowa, every freeway rest stop is equipped with free high-speed Internet so travelers can check e-mail or read about restaurants on the road ahead, at no cost to taxpayers. Several cities offer free Internet service in limited areas known as Wi-Fi (short for “wireless fidelity”) hotspots. Maine and Rhode Island are talking about building networks that would cover the entire states. It’s a different story in Springfield, where Mayor Tim Davlin at last week’s City Council meeting reacted with decided indifference when 1st Ward Ald. Frank Edwards suggested building a system here. A citywide system, Davlin said, would invite complaints from AT&T and other telecommunications companies that sell Internet service.  “First, Edwards’ proposal calls for a tax increase to pay for it, and the mayor opposes that,” says Ernie Slottag, mayoral spokesman. “Secondly, we’re in the business of clearing streets and putting out fires, and providing Internet access really isn’t our bailiwick. We’ve got other things to do first.” The city is talking with the state about establishing free Wi-Fi hot spots downtown, but the mayor opposes a citywide system, Slottag says, believing that such systems haven’t worked elsewhere. Anaheim is one example, he says: “It didn’t work. No one bought into it.” That’s news to Anaheim city officials, who signed a contract with EarthLink in January for citywide wireless access. The company, which will charge residents $20 a month, is paying the city, not the other way around.  “We’ll have rollout of our first area in the city by midsummer,” says John Nicoletti, Anaheim spokesman. “Hopefully we’ll have full deployment in the 50 square miles of Anaheim by the end of the year or early 2007.” In Philadelphia, where EarthLink has also closed a deal with the city, Internet access will cost $20 or less per month and will be made available to low-income residents for $10 a month. By contrast, America Online charges more than $20 a month for dial-up service. Contract terms for cities that have jumped into the high-speed pool run the gamut. Cities typically get service for free in exchange for allowing companies to sell access to residents. Annie Collins, a Batavia woman who’s made it her mission to spread broadband throughout the land, says high-speed Internet, like roads and schools, is too important to be left in the hands of big telecommunication corporations that won’t sell access without also including phone or cable service consumers may not want or be able to afford. “These companies care only about their bottom line, not about service,” she says. In Japan, where the government has made broadband a priority, consumers can get Internet access that’s 100 times faster than DSL for the equivalent of $40 a month, she says. In Springfield, Edwards says he’ll keep pushing. Although other cities are doing it for free, Edwards envisions a system that would cost taxpayers between $1 and $3 a month, which would come from an increase in the city’s telecommunications tax. But if a private company could build a system at no cost to taxpayers, so much the better, he says. Edwards wants a system that would include in-home warning sirens, or flashing lights for the hearing-impaired, that would be deployed by way of the Internet in the event of a tornado. Public-works employees, firefighters, and police officers could use the system to enhance dispatch services and increase efficiency. Residents who now pay $20 a month or more for Internet service could save hundreds of dollars if a small hike in the telecommunications tax covered the cost of a citywide system, he says. Schoolchildren whose families can’t afford Internet service could conquer the digital divide. “It just opens up a whole range of possibilities,” Edwards says. “I’m just saying, here are some ideas. Let’s talk about them.” Springfield, and virtually every other city in America, already has a smattering of accidental Wi-Fi hot spots created by folks with wireless routers who haven’t bothered enabling security features on their routers, which allows anyone within range to jump on the Internet for free, unbeknownst to the owner of the wireless system. It’s illegal in Illinois but rarely prosecuted. A man in Winnebago County, however, was fined $250 earlier this month after police found him with a laptop in a parked car. Edwards says Davlin’s talk of establishing Wi-Fi hotspots downtown doesn’t go far enough. But the mayor’s reaction to his idea doesn’t surprise him. “Why wouldn’t you be thinking about it for the entire city?” he asks. “Every time I say something, the mayor’s automatically against it. I think he’s playing politics on this issue. Let’s at least investigate it and see if it’s good for the community.”
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