Sacramento goes Wi-Fi

But is the city getting a good deal from MobilePro?

Aris Ang owns the Infusion cafe in Midtown, where patrons are drawn to free, high-speed wireless Internet service. Ang worries that the city’s Wi-Fi plan would hurt business.

Aris Ang owns the Infusion cafe in Midtown, where patrons are drawn to free, high-speed wireless Internet service. Ang worries that the city’s Wi-Fi plan would hurt business.

Photo By Larry Dalton

It’s 11 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and every customer at the Infusion cafe is staring at a laptop. The Midtown restaurant is one of the city’s few “hot spots” where wireless Internet is fast, reliable and free, or at least as cheap as a cup of coffee. And customers love it, working away at their computers while lounging in one of Infusion’s suspended bubble chairs or slick stainless-steel stools, steaming chai in hand.

One fan is Amanda Castaneda, a marine biologist who typically works at UC Davis. Today she is working “from home,” writing a report that she will e-mail to her boss using Infusion’s wireless services.

“I don’t have Internet at home, so I just come here or go to a local college campus when I want to e-mail,” said Castaneda, 24.

And yet, soon Castaneda might not have to leave home to access the World Wide Web. Sacramento is preparing to sign a contract with MobilePro, a nationwide Internet service provider, that will establish free, citywide Wi-Fi (that’s techno-talk for wireless fidelity), possibly as early as January.

A small-scale pilot program, centered around Cesar Chavez Plaza and City Hall, will launch in the next few weeks. Then, over the next two years, neighborhood by neighborhood will become “meshed” until every citizen has access to free wireless services. As long as your laptop is equipped with a Wi-Fi card (most are, or you can add your own), you’ll be set to work in the park, in a hotel room, in every restaurant in town—heck, in your bathtub if you like.

However, not everyone is breaking out the bubble bath. Some public-interest representatives—both locally and nationwide—say wireless technology should be approached as a valuable public utility, like water or electricity, that should remain under the control of local government. Perhaps cities like Sacramento, they say, in their eagerness to save a buck, have given away too much to private companies like MobilePro that may not have citizens’ best interests in mind.

“This is a very lucrative contract we’re handing out,” said Joanne Fuller of Common Cause, which advocates for citizens’ rights and government accountability. “What concerns me is that we get the best deal for most people in Sacramento, that the public has an opportunity to weigh in on the issue and that we use this opportunity to bridge the digital divide.”

Is Sacramento’s planned Wi-Fi program a good deal for its citizens? That’s still up for debate. Here’s how WAZ Sacramento (that’s “wireless access zone”) will work, according to the chief information officer for Sacramento’s information-technology department, Steve Ferguson: The city will establish a public-private partnership that grants MobilePro free access to the city’s extensive fiber-optics network and its physical property, like light poles and public buildings, where transmitting equipment will be placed. So far, the city has not come up with an estimate of what that access is worth for a company like MobilePro.

In return, MobilePro will invest an estimated $7 million to $11 million in setup costs and equipment. This includes 25 to 30 radios (Wi-Fi transceivers) per square mile, which will pass information to backhauls (the hardwire Internet connections) spaced throughout the city. MobilePro also will replace and maintain equipment as necessary.

Once that equipment is in place, voilà! Sacramento will be one huge hot spot of wireless Internet access. Here’s the catch: It won’t be free for everyone all the time. As the proposal now stands, every Sacramento resident and visitor will be allowed two hours of free Internet access. You choose your two hours, but once you log on, the clock is ticking. Free access also will be the slowest, 56K for upload and download, comparable to dial-up speed. The free service offered at hot spots like Infusion is much faster.

Under the city’s Wi-Fi plan, if you truly want high-speed, wireless Internet round the clock, you’ll have to subscribe to one of MobilePro’s tiered programs: For $19.95, you can get 1 megabit per second download and 128K upload, comparable to a standard DSL speed; for $29.95, you can get up to 1.5 megabits download and 384K upload; and for $49.95, you can add a feature that allows you to make digital phone calls on your computer, but only in Sacramento.

Ferguson said MobilePro will be given free rein to charge whatever the market will bear. “As long as other providers are competing, MobilePro can’t let [its rates] get way out of whack,” he said.

What concerns some people about this approach is that those currently caught in the digital divide, those who can’t afford the Internet, once again will be handed high-tech scraps—minimal, slow service. Meanwhile, businesses like Infusion, which currently offer free, fast Internet, may quit offering the service if they think their customers are covered elsewhere.

Aris Ang, the owner of Infusion, currently pays $180 a month to offer free, high-speed wireless to his customers. If Sacramento goes wireless, “it may get in the way of what we’re offering,” he said. “Right now, people come because they don’t have Internet at home, or it’s not fast enough. Maybe it will be more convenient for them to stay at home.”

While many cities around the United States are taking a similar approach to Sacramento’s by partnering with private vendors, others are finding creative ways to make higher-level service more affordable to all citizens. Philadelphia, for example, has established a nonprofit group that will oversee its partnership with private vendors. The nonprofit also will share revenues with the vendors, allowing it to offer discounted service to low-income households.

And San Francisco, always the belle of the ball, is contemplating an agreement with Google that will blanket the city with high-speed Wi-Fi at no cost to the city or residents. What’s in it for Google still isn’t clear—perhaps ad revenues. But such deals leave some public advocates wondering if Sacramento has thought long enough, and negotiated hard enough, about this valuable public resource.

“The way we communicate with each other is a very critical issue that will impact us for decades,” said Ron Cooper, executive director of Access Sacramento, the public-access cable station. “We need to have a broader discussion and make sure technology is a tool we use, instead of it leading us by the nose.”

So far, it’s full speed ahead for Ferguson, who has gotten signals from the city council to move aggressively toward a citywide rollout once the contract is complete. Ferguson has paused long enough to meet with several members of the nonprofit community and is willing to meet with other groups as they express interest. (Common Cause and Access Sacramento are hoping to organize such meetings in the days to come.)

Ferguson also has been thinking through a larger vision of how Sacramento can utilize the wireless technology once it’s in place. As a start, the pilot program at Cesar Chavez Plaza will include a surveillance camera to explore crime-prevention possibilities. Other likely municipal uses for Wi-Fi include providing mobile city workers, like inspectors, with laptops to download information; and equipping emergency vehicles with Wi-Fi that could relay information to police, fire or hospital workers—or even automatically change traffic lights to speed travel time.

It’s a whole new wireless world for Sacramento, just around the corner. Faster, slicker, more efficient and more accessible. As long as no one gets left behind.