Across the nation, suburbs, coastal beach towns and big cities all are debating the role government should take in making sure their citizens...

Share story



Across the nation, suburbs, coastal beach towns and big cities all are debating the role government should take in making sure their citizens have access to the Internet.


It is becoming an increasingly important conversation as the world begins to measure how advanced a country is, in part, by how many of its citizens have high-speed Internet access at home.


The United States ranked 12th in the world at the end of 2004, a figure that is falling, not rising, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development.


Leonard Ray, president of the Fiber to the Home Council, which supports the development of high-speed Internet, said providing access is important beyond telecommuting or sending videos of your daughter to your grandparents.


“It goes to the productivity and security of this country years down the road,” he said. “Will this country have the electronic infrastructure to remain on top?”


Municipalities have taken notice. While some have chosen one route, others have gone the opposite direction, using varying technologies and hybrid business plans.


Last week, a task force made its recommendations of how Seattle should move beyond the dial-up, DSL and cable speeds available today. It called for fiber-optic cable to be laid to every home and business within 10 years.


Although one of the most lofty and costly options, the task force said without the city’s leadership, tech-savvy Seattle could lose its competitive foothold. Furthermore, it found little competition to drive telecommunications and cable providers toward this goal.


In general, fiber connections are not readily available in U.S. homes today, mainly due to cost of either laying the fiber or stringing it along utility poles.


Acknowledging that, some cities are content to offer residents low-cost or free wireless Internet access, using Wi-Fi or more advanced technologies.


The Seattle task force’s decision not to focus on Wi-Fi runs counter to many cities that have forged ahead after having a similar advisory panel.


About 50 have built or have plans to build wireless access points citywide or in designated areas, according to Muniwireless.com/”>Muniwireless.com, a Web site maintained by a Dutch lawyer who watches Wi-Fi trends worldwide.


Seattle’s task force determined the city didn’t need to provide blanket Wi-Fi access because the private sector likely would do it eventually. (Many private and commercially available services exist, but mainly in certain stores or locations.) Seattle also favored fiber optics because it can provide significantly more bandwidth than Wi-Fi.


Fiber, made of strands of glass as thin as a human hair, carry large digital files quickly. In the snail-mail world, not having it would be equivalent to being unable to ship a large package overnight due to its weight.


“Wi-Fi isn’t a bad goal, but we have a much wider and larger goal to embrace,” Seattle City Councilman Jim Compton said after hearing the task force recommendations. Among other things, the report envisions the city system handling large applications such as high-definition TV and video conferencing.


Although cities have come to different conclusions on whether and how to handle government-provided broadband, there have been similar themes, including the issue of cost to the user and provider; what technology to use; and accessibility.


Most cities looked at a much shorter time frame than Seattle, asking what a resident might need in the next five years. Philadelphia and Los Angeles determined rolling out wireless technologies would be best.


The reasons driving those decisions included the desire to bridge the digital divide — to bring high-speed access to those who could afford only dial-up or nothing at all. There was also a mobility factor. Some cities wanted a system that could be accessed anywhere, whereas a fiber system is accessible only through a direct connection.


Here is a closer look at what some cities and towns are doing to provide access to residents:


Seattle: The Task Force on Telecommunications Innovation said that within a decade all of Seattle will have affordable access to a broadband system capable of supporting advanced applications most likely through fiber to the home.


The report did not detail how that would be accomplished or its cost, but recommended the City Council create an Office of Broadband to monitor and discuss the issue further.


Seattle is also conducting a pilot project in both Columbia City and the University District to see if Wi-Fi can spur economic development when it is offered free. It is also providing Wi-Fi in four parks. There are no plans to expand the pilot anytime soon.


Philadelphia: The city has received much attention for pledging to develop what could be one of the largest and densest Wi-Fi deployments in the U.S.


The goal is to target the 42 percent of Philadelphia households that don’t have any connection to the Internet, the No. 1 reason being it is too expensive, said Dianah Neff, Philadelphia’s chief information officer.


Once it’s rolled out, the service will be managed by a nonprofit and is expected to cost $16 to $20 a month. Prices would drop for low-income residents.


“The city’s goals are for all to have access to the Internet,” Neff said. “We don’t want to leave another generation of families and children behind, who don’t have computer access or computer skills.”


Los Angeles: A Los Angeles study titled “Fast and Easy — the Future of WiFi and Beyond,” issued by a panel April 25, concluded that everyone in the city should have access to affordable broadband, most likely using a blend of wireless technologies.


Panel chairman Morley Winograd said the mobility factor was a critical reason it leaned toward wireless.


“People want the ability to transport that experience as opposed to go home and get it,” said Winograd, executive director of the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business’ Center for Telecom Management. “Fiber to the car is really hard.”


He said the panel avoided looking too far into the future. “If you did 10 years, I would say you are probably looking at fourth-generation broadband,” Winograd said. “It’s going to be wearable and miniaturized and extraordinary powerful.”


The report estimated one square mile of coverage would cost $150,000 to $200,000. Maintenance and management costs could double that estimate and the technology could be obsolete in five years.


The report estimated that under the panel’s recommendations, a $15-a-month charge would allow the city to break even, if enough users signed up.


Bellevue: The city has no plans for widespread broadband to be deployed, said Toni Cramer, Bellevue’s chief information officer, who also served on Seattle’s task force.


“We aren’t plunging into developing our own corporation and push it out to everyone in the community, who pretty much already have it,” she said.


Instead, Bellevue plans to use its fiber network and conduits to help neighborhoods or businesses, which could include leasing it to businesses, or providing access to the rights of way. In the fall, that may include two Wi-Fi projects, in the downtown pedestrian core and in the Surrey Downs neighborhood.


Spokane: Citywide Wi-Fi started during Spokane’s annual Hoopfest tournament, known as the largest three-on-three basketball tournament in the world, because its officials wanted to submit scores wirelessly, said Robin Toth, a director at the Spokane Area Economic Development Council.


The temporary network turned into a pilot project. Now the free network, Spokane HotZone, is nearing its one-year anniversary. It covers a 100-block area where the public can access it up to two hours at a time. Public and private funds cover costs.


Plans include expanding coverage to the county, where fire, police and other first responders will have access.


Tacoma: Its broadband network came about from analysis in the late 1990s by Tacoma Power that determined the utility needed a better way to communicate between its offices and power facilities.


Those conversations evolved into a plan to roll out fiber to all neighborhoods. Coaxial cable completes the connection from fiber home. Tacoma Power’s Click! Network — 800 miles of both fiber and coaxial cable — now offers Internet, television and telephone services. The capital costs totaled $98.6 million for equipment, said Diane Lachel, Click! Network’s government relations manager.


The network has 23,700 cable-TV customers and 12,000 cable-modem Internet users.


Rural areas: Along the Columbia River in Skamania County, Stevenson has deployed Wi-Fi in its downtown commercial core. The network was intended for tourists and other visitors and to promote overnight stays.


In Eastern Washington, the Columbia Electric Rural Association provides wireless broadband Internet services in Walla Walla and parts of Columbia and Umatilla counties.


Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com

















































Unwired cities
A growing number of cities and regions have wireless networks or are planning networks both in the United States and internationally.
U.S. International
Region and

citywide

29 27
City hotspots 13 14
Under

development

9 1
Total 51 42

Some cities have wireless networks that are used exclusively by government and public-safety employees

U.S. International
Deployed 23 4
Planned 2 0
Total 25 4

Source: Muniwireless.com/”>Muniwireless.com Report, March 2005





Seattle councilman