Sunday, May 14, 2006

There continues to be a buzz around town about my favorite pet subject, wi-fi. Obviously wi-fi is a huge story nationally as well, with so many towns, cities, and even regions (Silicon Valley and the state of Rhode Island) contemplating or planning large-scale wireless Internet initiatives.

I've noticed that in the face of the overwhelmingly positive enthusiasm for free and available Internet access, stories are now inevitably surfacing about "failed" projects -- Orlando's frequently mentioned, but its failure is also being debunked in other outlets and on wi-fi blogs. Meanwhile, privacy advocates and the ACLU, with whom I agree 95% of the time, are airing their concerns, which is fine with me as long as they do their job of protecting individual's rights without being obstructionist to wi-fi's progress in general. And while ISPs and their lobbyists continue to grumble about "unfair competition" from cities offering wi-fi, I believe their issues are more about protecting the overpriced Big Cable/Baby Bell duopoly and the status quo in general. (But hey, maybe that's just me!)

The question of who should pay for it continues to pop-up, as well; you know "taxpayer associations" are going to be up in arms over even the minimal costs of municipal wi-fi. The charge of the subcommittee I sit on was to determine if an expanded wi-fi program would be beneficial to economic development, and it didn't take long to determine that it has, can, and will be a customer lure for downtown businesses struggling to compete with national chains and malls. We then bandied about ideas for exactly how to expand the wi-fi in a way that would be most beneficial to local business without being a budgetary burden on the city. Based on our discussions, my guess is that we could expand our wi-fi project to reach strategic areas (i.e., a larger swatch of downtown, public parks and recreation areas, tourist centers, etc.) for about 2 bucks a citizen. To me, that's a no-brainer, especially when you consider the 3 years of value the city has already gotten from the donated time, equipment, an services of the Portsmouth/eCoast Wi-Fi Project sponsor companies, and the valuable demographic data we have collected and compiled for them over that time (see below). I understand there is some considerable support and enthusiasm at City Hall and on the City Council for this, so we shall see how it plays out. Clearly it's got all the ingredients for a big story, and I expect the media attention to continue through the summer.

In fact, we'll make a little splash of our own here in Portsmouth on the 18th of May when we relight the wi-fi flame in the Chamber's kiosk (at right) for another season. Let the games begin!

Also, I've been working with a nice young man named Matt at a favorite alternative local rag called "The Wire" on a large piece about wi-fi. He's put a lot of work into it, and I think it came out great. As a bonsu, they also presented my synopsis of the demo data in a sidebar; this may help to make our case to the general public. See it for yourself here. Or even better, pick up a copy almost anywhere downtown. It's the cover story; look for the tabloid-style paper with the green vertical "signal strength bars" on it.

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