05 Oct Madison – Wired and unplugged
Madison is a wired and unplugged city. Broadband access is easily available. Many businesses offer Internet access as a convenience and creative way to attract customers. However, recent news reports and editorials might lead you to believe that the city is falling behind other municipalities in terms of wireless access. Some suggest the situation will impact everything from tourism to job creation.
Mayor Dave Cieslewicz’s plan to expand wireless Internet access in the downtown area, airport and other municipalities hit a roadblock when the AOL-SkyCable team announced it no longer desired to invest in providing these services. It pulled the plug on a wireless services contract awarded in a competitive bid process. Following the AOL move, Madison-based SkyCable TV ceased operations last Friday.
TDS Telecom has announced that it is awaiting FCC approval for the wireless spectrum assets held by SkyCable TV. TDS would like to deploy wireless broadband to cover a 35-mile radius around Madison.
Madison’s municipal options are ranging from reviewing previous bids, the city going at it alone, to initiating a new process to select a replacement vendor. All of those solutions have merit as well as significant challenges and will further delay the mayor’s dream.
But is Madison really suffering from lack of wireless access?
I investigated the city’s wireless status by strolling from the Capitol to the UW along State Street. I immediately discovered an open wireless access point from which I searched the Web and found 65 wireless hotspots for the city of Madison, of which 29 were free. I discovered several more unlisted hotspots during my adventure.
The businesses that offered access were crowded with customers that appeared to be students, tourists and everyday people seeking Internet access, at a place where they could buy food and drink. Surprisingly, I discovered numerous open, unsecured wireless connections that broadcast from buildings along my route. (Users should exercise extreme caution when accessing any public network and use firewalls and other security software.)
At the far end of State Street, the campus libraries and student union and outdoor terrace were full of people unplugged accessing the Internet. UW-Madison has announced plans to have wireless access for the entire campus by June 2006, by adding 2,200 access points for wireless access in 180 dorms, laboratories and administration buildings.
Madison visitors appear to have plenty of wireless access provided by hotels and conference centers.
Cities and towns across the country are considering developing and deploying wireless access for a variety of reasons. Some are facilitating private sector networks, and some are offering taxpayer-supported networks.
Intel, Google and others are looking to work with pilot communities to deploy comprehensive wireless services ranging from free access to improving government efficiency. Madison is hopefully exploring those offerings.
Economic development and job creation are the most frequently cited reasons for cities to offer wireless. And, cities want to be known as “cutting edge.” However, the Washington D.C.- based Millennium Research Council in a February 2005 whitepaper entitled “Not in the Public interest – The Myth of Municipal Wi-FI Networks claimed that there is little proof that municipal wireless networks improve economic development and tourism.
While the city and county sort this out these expanded services, Dane County Airport should sign a short-term agreement with one of the numerous vendors that serve similar facilities. Airport officials said they are moving forward to provide the airport with its own wireless network.
Other alternatives for Madison’s mobile professionals include offerings from Verizon and Sprint that provide wireless broadband access via a PC card, with high-speed cellular technology, for as little as $60 per month. T-Mobile, Boingo, Wayport and others offer services that are already installed at most major airports, hotels and cafes, but require you to find specific wireless hotspots. And many cell phones now offer internet connectivity that can extended to your computer.
The AOL-SkyCable pullout of the Madison project might be viewed as an opportunity to re-evaluate whether such a broad, public-supported venture is necessary. In the meantime, the private sector seems to be doing just fine providing Madison with options for wireless access.