Thursday, November 17, 2005


Home Town Newspaper Makes Good!

When I was a boy growing up in Woods Hole, it was my duty to deliver the Falmouth Enterprise to subscribers around the Eel Pond every Tuesday and Friday after school. It is still published every Tuesday and Friday.

Eureka! I opened the November 8 issue to find this Editorial, by Managing Editor Janice Walford. Clearly Municipal Wireless has reached a tipping point.

Since the Falmouth Enterprise's website no longer carries this editorial, here it is, word for word.

Community Approach to Internet

Just as many families are taking a hard look at their monthly expenses for cell phones, Internet access, and the like, small towns and large cities are also seeking ways to trim their “communications” budgets.

The town of Pepperell, for example, with a population of 11,000, hopes to save $30,000 a year on its Internet access and cell phone bills, which equates to about 60 percent of its communications budget.

This savings will be accomplished by switching from the broadband service, offered by cable and telephone companies, to a wireless computer network, owned and operated by the town.

Pepperell’s system administrator, Den Connors, told Commonwealth magazine that last year he was comparison shopping for cable (wired) modems for the town. After investigating the wireless option, he said, “It became very obvious that it would simply be cheaper for a town the size of Pepperell to go out and install this gear in one shot.”

The total cost is between $120,000 and $130,000, which Mr. Connors says the town expects to recover in about three years.

Pepperell’s wireless network consists of about 30 diamond-shaped boxes containing an antenna and radio transmitter, each the size of a baseball base. Each installation, costing $1,500, is attached to the roof of a municipal building, plus one in the belfry of the historic town hall. Most of the installations are on slender 30-foot poles, similar to cell phone towers. Installation and maintenance on any tower less than 100 feet can be performed by town workers; anything higher than that requires special certification and insurance.

Mr. Connors says the signals bouncing among the boxes provide Internet access to all the buildings at speeds from 10 to 100 times faster than cable- or phone-based access. There’s an automatic data backup system and many of the landline telephones already have been replaced with VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol). In the second phase, video cameras and alarm systems will be installed, which will be advantageous to the public safety and public works departments. Mr. Connors says that while cost-effectiveness was the primary goal, the new system also is being well received by employees for its efficiency.

Pepperell is only the second of the 351 communities in Massachusetts to take the wireless route. Malden went wireless for municipal purposes 18 months ago. It has now, according to Commonwealth magazine, launched a citywide network that allows all residents with computers and PDA devices to access municipal and community websites.

Brookline is investigating starting a public and municipal network simultaneously, an approach that also is being eyed by Newton.

Meanwhile, island-wide high speed wireless Internet access is being proposed for Nantucket. Transmitting devices that are small enough to hang from streetlights and telephone poles are part of the plan, in order not to add visual blight.
There are other important considerations, in addition to cost-savings, driving this movement toward municipal wireless.

High speed Internet access is becoming a public necessity, like water, gas, and electricity. Large and small communities are beginning to realize that they have to provide their residents with this service, either in partnership with the private sector or as a public utility. The concept is taking hold in communities from California to Michigan to Vermont. Two examples of the public-private partnerships that are being pursued are Philadelphia and San Francisco. Last month Philadelphia chose Earthlink to build and manage a citywide wireless network, at no cost to taxpayers. Low-income users will be charged $10 a month, other residents $20. Google has offered to make all of San Francisco wireless for free, gaining its revenue from targeting ads to users.

Massachusetts, which likes to bill itself as being on the cutting edge of technology, is obviously lagging behind, just as the United States is trailing far behind Japan and other Asian states in deploying broadband.

As can be seen with the split rate in Philadelphia, there is a need to make Internet access universally affordable, whether it’s in low-income urban neighborhoods or rural communities that are also badly underserved by the private sector. The community Internet approach treats broadband access as a public necessity, not a privilege, according to the, a website that has a wealth of information about this emerging trend.

Increased public access is another fine benefit. By using the local networks, towns can offer their residents any number of services, including public safety, political forums, church services, and Internet radio stations.

Many in both the public and private sectors see broadband access as an essential tool for economic growth, health care, and education for all ages. Proponents of affordable wireless broadband say access helps to keep jobs and attract new businesses. It also is an indispensable tool for telecommuting and advances in telemedicine.

It is a given that businesses such as Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T see all this as an invasion on their turf. Once it saw what was afoot in Philadelphia, Verizon reportedly spent more than $3 million to lobby the Pennsylvania state government to pass a bill preventing other cities and towns from offering the same services, unless the phone company has refused to do so. Texas has a blanket prohibition on the public sector entering this field. Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed a law in June that prevents cities and towns from offering broadband if there are competing private services.

A battle also is brewing in Congress, with millions being spent on lobbying to keep the public sector out of this arena. On the side of big businesses is Republican Congressman Pete Sessions of Texas, a former telephone company executive, who introduced legislation similar to the ban in Pennsylvania. On the Senate side, Republican John Ensign of Nevada has introduced the misleadingly named Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act. Truly on the side of consumers are Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who have introduced legislation giving free rein to cities and towns to offer broadband.

Some competition for the major providers would be healthy, because their track record is dismal when stacked against the progress being made abroad. A recent study shows that the US has dropped to 16th in the percentage of its citizens with access to broadband, lagging behind South Korea, Canada, Israel, and Japan.
The US is the only industrialized state without an explicit national policy for promoting broadband. Until recently, the US led the world in Internet development. Now Japan has shot into the lead, with nearly all Japanese having access to high speed broadband, with an average connection speed 16 times faster than in the US, for about $22 a month.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, in an article called “Down to the Wire,” Thomas Bleha says: “By dislodging the United States from the lead it commanded not so long ago, Japan and its neighbors have positioned themselves to be the first states to reap the benefits of the broadband era: economic growth, increased productivity, technological innovation, and an improved quality of life.”

This is a lesson that needs to be heeded close to home, too.
Reprinted in entirety by permission of The Falmouth Enterprise. The Enterprise's very limited Web site (which only goes back a week, thus does not include this Editorial) is here.

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Cape Connections ... The Cape Cod Technology Council is leading efforts on community wireless networks with the John Adams Innovation Institute funded UNWIRED VILLAGE project. It's designed to be a replicable model and is piloting in Orleans.

-- Teresa
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