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|Why Wireless?: Bettendorf Considers a Community-Wide Network, but It’s Already Being Built|
|News/Features - Technology|
|Tuesday, 08 August 2006 22:41|
The idea has immediate appeal. Anybody would be able to use a laptop computer anywhere in the city, making it attractive for tech-savvy (or tech-dependent) people and businesses who might want to visit or relocate there.
That was an idea that Dick Klein brought earlier this year to the Bettendorf City Council, which then formed a task force to look into the concept. That six-member task force has met twice already, and is expected to report back to the council in the next few months.
Klein said his vision was for the city to use a wireless network to make city services more efficient, with the savings underwriting free wireless Internet access for citizens.
But don't expect Bettendorf to become the Quad Cities "most wireless" city. Although it has reached no conclusions, several members of the task force said that private-sector initiatives in the area of wireless networks would make any municipal effort redundant.
Those developments are hardly the end of the discussion, though. The fact that several in-the-works wireless data networks that would cover most or all of the Quad Cities raises critical questions. What would Bettendorf, for example, do with a wireless network? And what do these networks mean on the consumer end? Are we really that close to the day when a person with a laptop or PDA will be able to access the Internet from virtually anywhere in the Quad Cities?
As with any new technology, the applications for large-scale wireless networks - compared to small installations of WiFi at restaurants, airports, and homes - aren't fully developed, or haven't even been thought of yet.
Possibly within six months, consumers, indeed, will be able to have wireless Internet access throughout the Quad Cities - probably for the same price as a dial-up Internet service. Some businesses, even those that move large amounts of data, might find wireless networks a less-expensive alternative to a T1 line. And governments and educational institutions will be able to use the technology in areas such as public safety, for communicating with police or fire vehicles, for instance, or monitoring security cameras.
In Bettendorf, a wireless network is being thought of first and foremost as an economic-development tool in a highly competitive environment. "If nine cities offer something, and you're city number 10 and you don't," said Bettendorf Director of Economic Development Steve Van Dyke said, "that's an issue."
He added that anything a community can do to make itself more attractive to residents or businesses should be considered. "People now move to where they want to be first, and then they decide about what they're going to do for a living," he said.
The aims of a community wireless network are certainly vague. As Mediacom Region Vice President Scott Westerman said, "Everybody wants to have it [a wireless network], but they're not sure why they want it."
What will likely hold Bettendorf back, though, is the fact that so much is already happening without government involvement. Basically, without significant investment of taxpayer dollars, the wireless future is nearly here.
WiMAX on the Horizon
Bettendorf isn't the first municipality in the Quad Cities to talk wireless. Rock Island's city council has as one its goals for 2005 to 2010 "wireless telecommunications infrastructure study and plan," and in June the city began offering free wireless-Internet service in The District.
This is a relatively small project - basically Second Avenue from 17th to 19th streets - that the city is conducting both as a pilot project and an amenity, said Tim Bain, the city's assistant director of information technology.
Rock Island joins dozens of other entities - such as restaurants and the Quad City International Airport - that have set up "WiFi hot spots."
But WiFi is limited to a small geographic area, because by its nature that protocol uses unlicensed radio frequencies, thus limiting the maximum power of the signal. That makes WiFi ideal for wireless-Internet access at home, or in an office or restaurant, but expensive and logistically difficult for an entire city.
Enter WiMAX, which has the potential to greatly expand the reach of wireless Internet. If the WiMAX protocol reaches its potential - and the Quad Cities will be one of its first tests - the dream currently being discussed in Bettendorf could be a reality. It's just unlikely that city government will be doing it.
The future of wireless Internet may well reside with educational institutions. A number of wireless-Internet-access networks are in the works in the Quad Cities, two being spearheaded by community colleges.
Both Scott Community College and Black Hawk College will lease their Federal Communications Commission-issued radio licenses (for "educational broadband systems") to private companies that will build large-scale wireless networks to cover their service areas and beyond. The FCC requires that at least 5 percent of the bandwidth be reserved for educational purposes.
Basically, forward-thinking educational institutions snatched up these licenses when they became available - not necessarily sure what they were going to do with them but recognizing them as valuable. Now, they're able to negotiate deals with technology companies that net them money up-front as well as annual payments and free or reduced-cost access to the network. Best of all, they don't have to actually spend money on the network.
Greg Rogers, Black Hawk's vice president for administration, said that the college is close to signing an agreement with a local Internet Service Provider (ISP) - which he declined to name - that will result in one phase of the wireless network being built within 12 months of approval by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). That puts its deployment in late summer or early fall of 2007.
The network, he said, will eventually extend 35 miles from the college's Quad Cities campus. The network will employ the emerging WiMAX protocol, which is expected to complement to the now-pervasive WiFi protocol. Wireless networks such as those planned by Scott Community College and Black Hawk College will reach much farther than current WiFi installations because they will use licensed radio frequencies and are therefore allowed to broadcast more powerful signals.
Scott Community College is farther along. It has leased its frequency to Davenport-based Solo Direct Connect. Andy Tyrrell, president of that company, said he expects the WiMAX network to be operational near the beginning of 2007. He said Scott Community College's network will be the first in the nation to use the 802.16e protocol - essentially, the latest incarnation of the WiMAX standard. "They're going to make the Quad Cities a destination," he said.
In practical terms, Scott Community college will offer free WiMAX to its faculty and staff, Tyrrell said. Students will be able to access it for half-price. And the general public will be able to get 256K speed - roughly five times faster than dial-up - for $19.95 a month.
In addition to its partnership with Scott Community College, Solo Direct Connect is working with ISPs, including Moline-based Internet Revealed, Tyrrell said. "We're not in the business of putting anyone out of business," he said.
Well, not exactly. WiMAX could eventually put dial-up Internet users out of their misery, offering a faster product at a similar price without tying up phone lines.
But it likely won't replace land-line-based broadband services such as cable and DSL, or WiFi. Wired Internet will always be more reliable than wireless, and WiFi will still be an important tool for wireless networking. And the fact is that no wireless network can reach every nook and cranny.
It's also important to note that few devices on the market today can use WiMAX. While nearly all laptops sold today have WiFi capabilities, very few machines have WiMAX capacity.
Tyrrell said that WiMAX users will likely lease cards for the protocol, the same way they might lease a cable modem from Mediacom. Cards - which plug into a computer's PCI slot - are already available, and Intel plans to roll out its own version before the end of the year. Over the next few years, it's expected that most laptops will be be equipped with both WiFi and WiMAX chips at the factory.
"What Is the Demand?"
These developments underscore a primary reasons that Bettendorf should let the private sector take a shot at large-scale wireless networks: Companies are willing to pay for the frequencies and build the networks themselves. In other words, technology companies see WiMAX as a potential profit center.
Although he professed that he had no preference, Bettendorf's Van Dyke conceded that it's not as if citizens don't have choices when it comes to Internet access; most cities that delve into areas such as the Internet and cable television do so because there's a void, or a monopoly. "The great thing is there are multiple providers," Van Dyke said.
"I think it [community-wide wireless access] is a wonderful idea" - in theory, said Brian Gillette, president of Bettendorf-based Comco Incorporated and a member of the Bettendorf task force. Gillette's company specializes in data processing and e-mail security. "The question is whether you can do it without suppressing private investment" and without burdening taxpayers.
The reality is that the private investment is already happening, Gillette said, and city involvement could deter it. "There's just a ton of people doing them [wireless networks] without us [the city]," Gillette said.
Creating a community-wide wireless network would only drive out tech-savvy companies, Gillette said - the opposite of the project's goal.
He cited a June article in the Mercury News (http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/breaking_news/14871866.htm). The article discussed St. Cloud, Florida - the first community in the United States to provide city-wide wireless-Internet access. "A staggering 84 percent of Cyber Spot users, according to a recent city survey, ‘are either currently or plan to ultimately use [the service] as their only access to the Internet,'" the article read.
Gillette argued that providers of DSL and cable services would simply stop investing in the city if Bettendorf government undertook a similar project: "How much more money are you going to spend on a market that's going to plummet on you?"
"The private sector will step up to the plate," said Mediacom's Westerman. His company has set up pilot projects in some communities - for example, launching a wireless network in downtown Marshalltown last month. That network allows free usage for a few hours per user per day. "What we want to avoid is people using the wireless network as their primary Internet connection," he said.
Mediacom partnered with the Quad City International Airport on its WiFi service, and is also exploring the possibility of making a park near Augustana College a hot spot, he said.
Still, Westerman said he is skeptical about how much value a wireless network adds to a community. "The unanswered question is: What is the demand?" he said. At the Quad City International Airport, he said, usage is modest. "There are some," he said, "but it's not a significant number."
Rock Island's Bain said that The District is using roughly 10 percent of its WiFi capacity at this point. "It's not seeing a whole lot of usage," he said.
Gauging the demand is one goal of a study commissioned by the different municipalities in the Illinois Quad Cities and the Bi-State Regional Commission. The study includes a survey (http://www.ilquadcitiesstudy.com) that asks, among other things, "If wireless high-speed Internet access was available in the downtown Illinois Quad Cities areas, how likely would you be to visit those areas to utilize this method of Internet access?"
Another reason to let the private sector drive this truck is that the technology is still developing. While WiMAX arrives with a lot of hype, technology is notoriously liquid. "Whatever we would lock in and build as a government would be wrong," Gillette said. "All of this stuff is way too new for anybody to call."
Westerman said it is important for a community to be business-friendly with its wireless, ensuring that wireless Internet number access is available in hotels, airports, and other public places that business travelers are likely to congregate.
Both Westerman and Gillette agreed that the best way for a community to be attractive to new or relocating businesses is through a strong fiber-optic infrastructure. Mediacom's goal, Westerman said, is "a very robust fiber network."
The key, Westerman said, is not the convenience of wireless but the reliability and capacity of the lines in the ground.
Gillette noted that many businesses require redundancy in their fiber networks - essentially a backup plan if there's a problem. With phone-service providers, Mediacom, and even the City of Bettendorf investing heavily in fiber-optic networks in recent years, he said, "we have more fiber power than we thought."
And whether it knows it or not, Gillette said, Bettendorf's decision several years ago to lay fiber-optic cable to every traffic signal in the city was prescient. "Bettendorf is in the catbird seat in most of the Midwest," he said.
Westerman agreed that the Quad Cities are well-positioned technologically, as well as with their quality of life and transportation systems. "We need to do a better job of telling our story," he said.
Beyond a direct investment in infrastructure, Gillette said, Bettendorf should concentrate on encouraging others to invest. "The city ought to do every flippin' thing it can think of to get people to spend money to build Bettendorf" and its technological infrastructure, Gillette said.
Westerman said it's important for communities to identify concrete projects - rather than merely envisioning a wireless future for all - for which technology would be an appropriate tool. Does the city want to use its capacity for traffic safety, or crime cams, or to improve communication about weather, or to enhance emergency preparedness?
It can do all of those things.
"How can we improve the community services we provide to citizens through technology?" he asked. "I want to hear what their dream situation is."
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