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Wednesday, June 7, 2006 12:28 am

Crosswired

Springfield is finally taking steps to bring affordable Internet to everyone. It has a long way to go.

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Imagine a Midwestern industrial town where a rookie mayor proposes a property-tax increase, the first in almost 10 years. About $6 million of the money would build a citywide wireless-Internet system. Imagine the protests from angry property owners who would pay nearly $100 a year more for a $250,000 home. Imagine the outcry from business interests. Imagine the political potshots at city-council meetings. We’re talking hard-earned tax dollars spent so that teenagers can surf MySpace while their parents shop eBay. They’d be riding this new mayor out on a rail, right? Wrong. Aurora — the second-largest city in Illinois, home to the fictional cable-access show Wayne’s World and one of the first cities in America to light its streets with electricity — is quite a place. When the mayor proposed the tax increase in his 2006 budget, the board of Aurora’s chamber of commerce unanimously endorsed the spending plan. The budget sailed through the City Council on an 11-1 vote. In the end, this city near Chicago will be spending millions of dollars less than the mayor proposed. Seeing that the city was serious, MetroFi, based in California, agreed to build a system for free. The city will get access in return for allowing the company to set up a system that relies on advertisers to pay costs and return a profit. Neither taxpayers nor computer users will pay a penny for unlimited access to the Internet. Instead, a strip of ad space about an inch wide will run along the tops of browser windows. No ads will appear on city computers, nor will ads run for computer users who pay a $20 monthly fee, considerably less than what for-profit companies charge for DSL or cable access that must be bundled with telephone or cable-television service — America Online charges more than $20 for stand-alone dial-up service. If another company comes along with a better idea, fine: The city’s agreement with MetroFi is nonexclusive, so competitors are free to take their best shots. The system is scheduled to start up within two months, with the entire city going online by early next year. Community leaders plan to collect computers from government agencies and businesses and distribute them to low-income families so that poor schoolchildren can have the same digital advantage as their classmates. By all accounts, it’s a wonderful thing. Nary a peep has been heard from telecom and cable companies that charge for Internet service. “It’s not costing taxpayers a dime,” says Gerry Galloway, a consultant for SkyPilot, which is providing hardware for the endeavor. “The Internet service itself will be free to the public.” Slumlords might have cause to worry, however, because building inspectors and other field-based city workers will use laptops or PDAs instead of going to city offices to retrieve and submit paperwork. “This is going to make existing personnel a lot more productive,” Galloway says. Yes, Aurora is basking in attention as it prepares to become the first city in Illinois to offer free high-speed Internet to anyone inside the city limits. Tony Hylton, a consultant to the city who shepherded the deal with MetroFi, says he’s fielded calls from scores of cities, including faraway ones like Boston and San Antonio, that want advice. But Hylton hasn’t heard from anyone in Springfield, which is fast falling behind as cities around the nation make access to the Internet a fundamental right, regardless of income or the whims of private corporations. Hylton says he’d be happy to help Springfield establish a toll-free digital highway. “You feel free to give them my name and phone number,” he says. Galloway says the same thing. “I think we can help them a lot,” he says. “SkyPilot is very interested in Springfield. I’m trying to set up a meeting with the people in Springfield.”
The question, though, is whether the city is truly interested in the democratization of the Internet or is just paying lip service.
After more than a year of talk, a project by Downtown Springfield Inc. to establish a high-speed hotspot in downtown Springfield remains in the embryonic stage. Meanwhile, an ad hoc committee has been quietly meeting to figure out how to bring affordable high-speed Internet to the entire city. The two groups are independent of each other, and no one is coordinating efforts. The lieutenant governor’s office has money available for the downtown project, but Springfield hasn’t gotten far enough to know how much to ask for or exactly how it would be spent. No one knows the service boundaries, nor is there a timeline to get a system up and running. “We are not even at a point where we can say what it’s going to cost,” says Carolyn Brown Hodge, director of rural affairs for Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, who is pushing hard for high-speed Internet access throughout the state. Hanson Information Systems is engineering the system, and Cisco Systems has agreed to donate transmitters that will spread signals. The city still hasn’t given permission for transmitters to be installed on city-owned utility poles. “I think the big thing is going through the bureaucracy, getting everyone to sign off on the antennas — we need some sort of agreement to get the antennas on the poles,” says Al Gietl, director of sales and marketing for Hanson Information Systems. So far as the city is concerned, everything is preliminary. “We’ve attended meetings as observers to listen with everyone else,” says Ray Serati, spokesman for city-owned City Water, Light & Power. The city is content to let other entities make things happen. “We are watching what Downtown Springfield is doing on this to see how they want to structure this,” says Ernie Slottag, spokesman for Mayor Tim Davlin, who dropped a proposal to build a $96 million system with fiber optics when he took office in 2003. A city study released the previous year showed that the system would pay for itself within six years. Slottag asks who will pay to maintain a high-speed-Internet system and who will pay to install it. Those questions have already been answered in other cities. In Aurora, for example, private enterprise is paying installation and maintenance costs. Slottag cautions that what works for Aurora might not work here. For one thing, Springfield is nearly twice the geographic size of Aurora, so more transmitting equipment might be required, he notes. The downtown project is further along than the citywide effort, which began about two months ago, with the ad hoc committee holding just three meetings so far. The committee organized by Alderman Frank Edwards is so new it doesn’t have a name yet. Chairwoman Wendy Howerter, who heads the business and information technology department at Lincoln Land Community College, says membership on the committee is still being decided, but will hopefully include representatives from the business community and local educational institutions. If and when a downtown hotspot is established, it will be a far cry from what other cities are doing. For one thing, access will be free for tourists, but not for folks who live here, even though the plan calls for tax dollars to be spent. After a week or so of service, users will be cut off and won’t be allowed back without paying for a subscription. Who will pocket money from subscribers and run the system hasn’t been decided. In addition, the system will be engineered so that guests in downtown hotels won’t be able to get free access. Instead, they’ll have charges tacked onto their room bills for the privilege of checking e-mails and otherwise using the Web. Planners say they don’t want to upset companies that now profit from providing Internet service. “We’re just trying to stay away from controversy in terms of trying to compete with other providers in town — we’re not out here to compete with Insight,” Gietl says. “It’s really for visitors and tourists.”
 It’s a stance the mayor agrees with. When Edwards first suggested a public Internet-access system at a March City Council meeting, Davlin had nothing but criticism, saying that telephone and cable companies would object. He also blasted Edwards’ proposal to increase the tax on telephone service to pay for a system. My 82-year-old mother doesn’t surf the Internet, and providing Internet service isn’t a priority for the city, said Davlin, who has accepted at least $3,000 in campaign contributions from Insight Midwest Holdings, a subsidiary of Insight Communications, which bundles high-speed Internet access with cable service. The Illinois Hotel Motel Political Action Committee has given the mayor $1,400, and the Springfield Hotel Association has contributed $500. The mayor’s office doesn’t sound nearly so strident today. “He was not against Wi-Fi; he was against taxes to pay for it,” says Slottag, who attended the most recent meeting of the ad hoc committee. The city doesn’t have an official position on whether free unlimited public access to the Internet is a good thing, but Davlin’s administration remains leery of cutting into profits for telecommunication companies. “Obviously we don’t want to put legitimate businesses out of business,” Slottag says. In St. Cloud, Fla., which this spring started up free high-speed access for the entire town, city officials and contractors who set up the system take a different slant on economic questions. The city calculates that residents and businesses in the town of about 10,000 people have been paying $4 million a year for Internet access. Instead of going to out-of-town telecom companies, that money will now be spent closer to home, city officials predict. The service, which began three months ago, has proven more popular than city officials expected. More than half the households in the city are using the system, which was paid for with public money and is being maintained by a contractor. Jonathan Baltuch, president of the firm that designed the system, says public spending is more than offset by savings to the city. For example, phone bills of more than $100,000 a year will disappear now that the city has Wi-Fi, he says. Proponents of Springfield’s downtown hotspot hope to get at least $20,000 from the state to help pay for it. Why don’t they ask the private sector to submit proposals to provide unlimited access for free? “Before we ever do that, I want the city to say yes without any reservation that they are ready to go forward,” Hodge says. “At this point, the city has not agreed to [free unlimited access]. We’re trying not to take away business. Right now, everybody’s cautious, as they should be.”
Edwards, who has been attending meetings of the ad hoc committee, says that no one has informed the committee that the downtown hotspot won’t be built for city residents. “We all need to be on the same page,” he says. “Why give someone something for free who doesn’t live here and people who live here and pay for it can’t have it? The people we’re really denying access to are people who can’t afford to have it.”

Springfield’s reluctance to make the Internet free astounds advocates for universal Internet access, who say that limiting access in the planned downtown hotspot goes against nationwide trends.  “This is incredibly atypical and perhaps unique, this idea of spending time, energy and money to make the network worse,” says Sascha Meinrath, a digital activist in Urbana. “They’re going to have to engineer their antennas to create dead spots. It’s ludicrous.”
Springfield isn’t entirely alone, however. In Quincy, a Mississippi River town due west of Springfield, civic boosters also plan to limit access to a wireless network to just an hour or so each day. “We don’t want to take business away from local providers,” says Karol Ehmen, executive director of the Historic Quincy Business District, which is putting the project together. It has taken much longer than she or the state imagined — 10 months after the lieutenant governor’s office awarded a $20,000 grant, access is limited to one park. When the grant was announced last summer, backers talked about putting downtown Quincy online, with access extending to boaters on the Mississippi River. “It’s been a difficult project because it’s all so new,” Ehmen says. Meinrath says that the Internet is too important to let money decide who will and who won’t be allowed in cyberspace. “This is social justice to create equitable access to a fundamental resource,” he says. “We wouldn’t dream of saying no one except private corporations can open a school — but in telecommunications, it’s OK to do that.”
In Urbana, Meinrath and other community activists have demonstrated how little it takes to get a system up and running. Four years ago, Meinrath and friends got a hotspot going for less than $1,000 and formed the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network. “We built it out of recycled computers,” he says. “Today, we have about a square mile covered.” The system proliferates as homeowners install rooftop antennas to spread the signal. “Almost anyone can put up a wireless device,” Meinrath says. “There are technologies that have the capability of providing huge amounts of bandwidth ridiculously cheap.”
Such systems obviously pose a threat to cable and telephone companies, which have responded by lobbying government. More than a dozen states have passed laws prohibiting municipalities from establishing their own Internet-access systems that would compete with private enterprise. Illinois isn’t one of them. When state Sen. Steven Rauschenberger, R-Elgin, proposed such a bill last year, it got nowhere in the Legislature. The battle to keep high-speed Internet profitable for big business has shifted to Congress, which is considering proposals that would allow telecom companies to decide which entities should be allowed to use fiber-optic lines and other hardware that enables lightning-fast speeds on the Internet. The lieutenant governor’s staffers are well aware of what they’re up against in spreading broadband access across the state. Near the end of the last legislative session, Quinn’s staff paid a quiet visit to Sen. Deanna Demuzio, D-Carlinville. Would the senator push for a $1 million pilot project aimed at making high-speed wireless Internet available throughout Montgomery and Macoupin counties? “I said, ‘Wow — sure,’ ” Demuzio recalls. Right now, dial-up is the only option in many areas of the two rural counties, where cornstalks far outnumber warm bodies. “Certainly I think wireless is in the future,” the senator says. “By bringing wireless here, it opens the world for many.”
Under the lieutenant governor’s plan, 14 communication towers used by the Illinois State Police and the Illinois Department of Transportation would be equipped with transmitting nodes that would blanket the two counties with Wi-Fi signals. It would be a public-private partnership, with all costs recouped through nominal fees for high-speed access that now isn’t available at any price in many parts of the two counties. Preliminary plans show the system would pay for itself within five years. Quinn needed $1 million from the Legislature to make it work in a limited area that would be expanded to cover both counties if all went well. What about AT&T, Verizon, and other telecommunications companies? “We did this under the radar because of who you just asked about,” answers Hodge. “Everyone would have been on us and mad.” Demuzio won’t say just how she kept things quiet while getting the money into the state budget. “I kind of worked it through the system; I worked it through the budget,” she says. “This is Illinois. It worked, all right? I only had a couple of days to get it through. Hopefully I have not made myself some enemies.”
As a legislator, Demuzio is looking forward to the day when she’ll have the same wireless access at the Capitol that is now in the works in her district. “It would certainly make our life easier,” she says, “and it’s coming to us in a few towns close to you.”
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