Rethinking Wi-Fi

Citywide free Wi-Fi gains momentum

MobilePro wants access to a network of thousands of city utility poles and buildings so it can mount radio transmitters, as pictured here, and thus blanket the city with a Wi-Fi signal.

MobilePro wants access to a network of thousands of city utility poles and buildings so it can mount radio transmitters, as pictured here, and thus blanket the city with a Wi-Fi signal.

Photo By Larry Dalton

The city’s experiment in Wi-Fi got off to a quiet, and somewhat soggy, start on Tuesday, after a much-delayed “wire-cutting” ceremony in Cesar Chavez Plaza.

The Wi-Fi pilot-project demonstration allows anybody with a Wi-Fi-enabled computer to get free, wireless, broadband Internet access anywhere inside the network’s coverage area. That’s not much so far, limited to the park and areas directly adjacent to it.

But plans are under way to roll out a citywide wireless network that would give Sacramento residents anywhere in the city Wi-Fi access. The network was planned to be in place by now, but negotiations with the service provider MobilePro have been complicated.

The network would allow any computer that is Wi-Fi capable (most newer Macs and PCs are) anywhere in the city of Sacramento to log on to the Internet. You could take your laptop to a cafe, the park or anywhere in your house and still have a high-speed Internet connection.

In order to build the network, MobilePro is asking for access to thousands of city utility poles and buildings to mount radio transmitters that would blanket the city with a Wi-Fi signal.

In exchange for the public right of way, the company has offered the city 3,000 free accounts, to be used by city workers and some nonprofit organizations. The company also was offering a very limited version of free access to Sacramento citizens, allowing anyone to log on once per day for up to two hours. The connection speed for the free service would be about 56K, close to dial-up speeds.

The proposal seemed to be a done deal, until nonprofit groups like California Common Cause and Ron Cooper from Access Sacramento started to point out that the city was trading away a valuable city asset and began questioning whether the city was getting a good deal in exchange for access to its utility poles and buildings.

“I think we got the city council’s attention,” said Cooper, who has been watching the Wi-Fi plan closely and lobbying city officials along the way.

On April 18, the city council is expected to officially approve an ad-hoc committee to help in the negotiations with MobilePro.

“I think it was time for the council to get involved. So far, you’ve had city staff trying to negotiate a good deal without any policy input,” said Rob Fong, one of the council members being appointed to the ad-hoc committee. He’ll join council members Kevin McCarty, Lauren Hammond and Mayor Heather Fargo.

Fong has been the most aggressive advocate of citywide free access to Wi-Fi. He is contemplating an advertising-based free service, similar to an experiment under way now in Sunnyvale. There, anyone can log on, any time of day, as often as he likes, and get free high-speed Internet access. But users have to put up with banner advertisements running along the edge of the screen.

For even faster connection speeds, and for advertising-free browsers, you’d have to pay a subscription fee, starting at $19.95 and going up to $49.95.

If the city can get MobilePro to go along, Fong said, Sacramento would be the first major city in California to offer free Wi-Fi access to all its citizens.

Fong sees free Wi-Fi as an economic-development tool and a way to bridge the digital divide between low-income citizens and those who can afford a pricey Wi-Fi subscription.

“When you make information more available, it’s like making democracy more available,” Fong explained.

The free Wi-Fi proposal goes far beyond what MobilePro was initially offering, but Fong isn’t too concerned about scaring the company off.

“It will either make business sense for this provider, or it won’t,” Fong explained. “I’m confident it will make sense to somebody.”