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Handicapping Milwaukee's wireless initiative

At the wireless Internet symposium presented last week at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, the list of speakers was as impressive as their messages.

Mary Glass of Campaign Neighborhood, who developed the symposium and is championing the issue for Milwaukee neighborhoods, delivered a very compelling speech that focused on how to give everyone the critical opportunity to take advantage of what connectivity brings. She believes that the citizenry should be closer to the decision process and that Milwaukee's wireless initiative, if correctly implemented, can jump start employment opportunities.

One of the issues she pointed to - use of city libraries - needs further amplification. Using libraries as centers for connectivity in challenged neighborhoods makes a lot of sense. Most libraries that have established computer rooms for access usually are fully utilized by seniors as well as students. Making sure there are adequate facilities as well as adequate hours of operation would help many people that do not have the access that many of us take for granted with our Blackberries, mobile-capable laptops, and DSL lines to our homes.

Another issue is to create a whole new way of employing people by using connectivity to help extend job opportunities via telecommuting. With pockets of unemployment at 65 percent, something radical has to be done.

What Milwaukee decided
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The City of Milwaukee's CIO, Randy Gschwind, provided a good overview of how the city arrived at its decision to award a non-exclusive use of facilities to build the wireless infrastructure.

Based on his presentation, Gschwind said some of the decisions the city made focused on not spending city money, and instead giving the development responsibility to a private entity. Some of the stipulations were that Midwest Fiber Networks (MFN) had to provide universal coverage and not focus on certain neighborhoods. It also got the private company to commit its larger partner, Cisco Systems, to guarantee the network completion.

Although some may question that they did not do an open RFP for the project, the reality is that the city was not procuring anything. They were approached by MFN and decided to approve the private endeavor on a non-exclusive basis. The key concepts Milwaukee appears to have covered were:

• Net neutrality.

• Universal service (the city has to be completely covered in 18 months).

• No cost to the city (and no subsequent liability).

• A "walled garden" of free applications versus subsidized rates.

In an earlier column, I rhetorically asked: How many cities will make the wrong choices about network infrastructure in this century?

From what I can see, I think Milwaukee is on the right track. I believe that the “walled garden” approach, where you get several applications free, is a much better approach than what some cities are doing in creating a “board” to decide whether or not someone qualifies for a subsidized rate for subscription services.

The keynote

I proposed some concepts and principles for good network design in my keynote speech. You cannot have bureaucracies in good network design. Creating a board to oversee subsidized rates is creating another bureaucracy, whereas making some applications free eliminates obstacles for people to use the network. Compared to some other cities that have created boards or commissions to determine eligibility, the approach to provide certain applications free streamlines the process and is the right way to go.

Municipalities have to get out of the mindset that you need a lot of bureaucracy in order to have a good network infrastructure. In fact, if the network is planned right, it should not have a lot of bureaucratic overhead.

Regional perspective: Southeastern Wisconsin

Also speaking was Gary Korb of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. He discussed the review of alternatives that the southeastern Wisconsin region had as to wireless and traditional network services. He provided some good examples of what approaches could be taken, and said that some of the smaller municipalities actually are becoming more attuned to developing something than the larger ones.

This supports my observation that small cities are more concerned about their economic competitiveness and survivability than some of the larger ones, which do not see this issue as a critical concern - yet.

What was interesting is that Korb reported that as SEWRPC tried to get an accurate assessment on what the region had, “wireless service providers declined to provide information or verify data compiled from public sources.” His report also indicated that “the lack of service provider cooperation made it impossible to develop reliable maps of coverage areas.”

It will be interesting to see if Illinois is any more successful in its endeavor to map out broadband capability because one of the goals was to find out how Illinois was covered by network services.

Cooperation by carriers and network service providers should be a given and not a “hoped for.” I am disappointed that Korb and his commission got a poor level of cooperation.

Missing mainstream media

There were some compelling arguments made for insuring that all Milwaukee neighborhoods have access to the capability and, more importantly, the need to simply understand how to benefit from and use the technology. Another concern was about the cost of getting some equipment in the hands of everyone.

The attendees picked up on the idea to be flexible, creative, and adaptive so when it came to how they could maximize the amount of laptops or computers, the idea of using recycled or refurbished computers was embraced as a possible way to go.

Unfortunately, this whole initiative and the supporting ideas could have been greatly magnified and amplified if some of Milwaukee's mainstream media participated in covering this discussion forum.

As I said in concluding my keynote speech: “In any endeavor like this, a municipality will need team leaders, catalysts for change, and a champion to push this type of initiative forward. They will also need the local media to provide a positive spotlight on this endeavor in order to get the public on board and supporting this type of major initiative.”

CARLINI-ISM: More municipalities are finding that location, location, location has to be updated to location, location, connectivity.

Copyright 2006 - James Carlini

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James Carlini is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, and is president of Carlini & Associates. Carlini can be reached at james.carlini@sbcglobal.net or 773-370-1888. Check out his blog at http://www.carliniscomments.com.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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