Reader issue #593
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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