I’m on a committee that’s trying to decide if we should install free municipal wireless for our community. A bit of background: Bettendorf, Iowa rests five-or-so miles south of Interstate 80 on the Mississippi River.
Bettendorf’s 31,000 citizens form a largely white collar enclave among the 360,000 souls living in the Quad Cities.
Sixty four percent of our citizens have experienced college, and 63% of those over 15 are married. The median age is 39, spread like this:
- 8% are 6 and under;
- 19% are 6 to 17;
- 8% are 18 to 24;
- 17% are 25 to 34;
- 23% are 35 to 49;
- 15% are 50 to 64;
- 10% are 65 and up.
Median household income: $54,000.
In 2004, the police say we suffered 2 rapes, 9 robberies, 90 assaults, 124 burglaries, 616 thefts, and 31 stolen cars. Murders? We measure them by the decade. Just last weekend, Bettendorf cops dusted off their forensic skills for a murder-suicide crime-of-passion… the first murder of any kind since 2001.
All-in-all, if you’ve ever seen Pollyanna (the movie), Bettendorf is pretty-much the 21st century edition. A great place to raise a family.
On the Iowa side of the river, folks generally buy broadband through ISPs (lastmile = Qwest), or Mediacom. The Illinois side ultimately deals with Ameritech or Mediacom.
A few years ago, Bettendorf worked hard to find a broadband partner. We offered up our unused municipal fiber optic lines, which run through all commercial/industrial areas of town, in exchange for the broadband partner building out redundant attachment to the Internet for business.
Only one private entity showed interest. The telco, CS Technologies (CST), attached Bettendorf’s network to CST’s statewide SONET, making durable Internet communications for those businesses that choose to subscribe.
As it stands today, you can connect to the Internet, free-of-charge, at Bettendorf City Hall, Bettendorf Community Center, the Bettendorf Library, the clubhouse at Palmer Hills Golf Course, Starbucks or Borders Bookstore. All are within five minutes of anywhere in Bettendorf.
For the record: Bettendorf emergency services already enjoys its own state-of-the art secure-and-mobile municipal wireless service.
So now we have a proposal to offer free mobile wireless to all comers. The first idea goes like this: Phildadelphia’s doing it, Silicon Valley’s doing it and Chicago’s doing it. If we don’t do it, relocating companies won’t consider us. And besides, it adds to the Bettendorf mystique.
The second meme runs: Our citizens need free mobile wireless, so they may bridge the digital divide.
A quick survey of local providers offering mobile wireless turned up Cingular, Sprint and Verizon. A local ISP, Internet Revealed and a newcomer, CommSpeed, expect to have mobile systems on line in September. Another local provider, QC Online, is working with Blackhawk Community College to roll out a Quad Cities-wide mobile wireless system by summer, 2007. And finally, Scott Community College has teamed up with Solo Direct to offer a 16 mile in diameter WiMax network that will blanket the Quad Cities.
Our wireless task force is considering the following questions today:
- Should the City provide mobile wireless service, even if it’s privately offered?
- What cost savings to existing City services are possible?
- How well has wireless worked in other cities? How many users? Who?
- What are the start-up costs?
- What are the ongoing costs, both capital and operating?
- Does the City have a further responsibility to erase the digital divide?
- Is WiMax really an economic development tool?
As I prepare for this meeting, I must say, unlike Philadelphia, Bettendorf has no significant underclass that can’t easily reach the Internet. The vast majority of those who want to access the Internet have already subscribed.
How many current subscribers will cancel their existing telco/cable/cell service? Mike Langberg of Mercury News shares one community’s WiMax experience. After St. Cloud, Florida installed free municipal wireless service, he writes:
One statistic in particular should strike fear into existing Internet service providers, or ISPs, especially phone and cable companies: A staggering 84 percent of [St. Cloud muni-wireless] users, according to a recent city survey, “are either currently or plan to ultimately use the service as their only access to the Internet.”In other words, several thousand households in St. Cloud may be in the process of dropping their DSL lines or cable modems.”
A drop like that in DSL and cable subscribers could easily force datacom operators to spend their money elsewhere.
As a member of the task force that developed our City’s fiber agreement, I learned firsthand that Bettendorf is not Silicon Valley. Private companies aren’t exactly clamoring to invest in our infrastructure. If we start competing with private projects, they may simply spend their money somewhere more profitable. I would.
What’s the rush? If we wait to see what the finished private networks look like, we can always supplement where they fall short.
What would you do?
Results of Wireless Task Force Meeting #2 (25 July 2006):
A new task force member, Dr. Thomas Coley, President of Scott Community College (SCC), described how SCC has partnered with Solo. SCC traded its frequencies for a monthly stipend plus free in-school and faculty WiMax, along with big student discounts. Solo, in turn, plans to blanket the entire Quad Cities with WiMax, at its going rate. Dr. Coley says that Blackhawk College and QC Online are doing the same thing on the Illinois side, so the Quad Cities will soon enjoy two complete WiMax solutions.
Thus, it seems that students, which form a large segment of Bettendorf’s low-income group that is inclined to use the Internet are in the process of being served. A suggestion was made that we talk to Solo and QC Online to see what kinds of discounts they may offer for the few low income Bettendorf residents that remain.
As for the WiMax revolution itself… Mike Masnick at Techdirt has been following WiMax (ie, Intel) push since its inception. On 19 July 2006, he opined again on “how incredibly overhyped WiMax is.”
He points out that, despite few installations, reporters and analysts have crowned this unvetted technology a success. To make the thing seem wildly popular, Masnick says promoters have mashed up WiMax stats with truly successful DSL user numbers; thus, while millions of users are claimed… for WiMax and DSL… the millions belong to DSL.
This smells much like the strategy used by Microsoft, vis-a-vis Sender Policy Framework (SPF). As we have discussed ad nauseum, Microsoft Sender-ID protocol springboarded off pre-existing SPF installations, allowing Microsoft to trumpet its claim of hundreds of thousands of users from Day One.
In the Comments below, Rick has dropped concise input you do not want to miss if your city is considering muni-wireless.
John has great input from the social side of the equation. The trick in our town will be separating those few who need our help from those who want Bettendorf taxpayers to shell out for Internet access, so middle class-and-up freeloaders can buy another round of golf.2049