14 Dec Madison wireless deal goes forward with Cellnet
Madison, Wis. — Although Madison has made a deal with Georgia-based Cellnet to provide Wi-Fi infrastructure throughout Madison, the deployment will not be an overnight event. Certain areas will be initially served before others, starting with a 9-square-mile area around Capitol Square expected to be approved by the City Council in January and brought online in March.
While the city of Madison has taken an active role in brokering Cellnet’s access to city property and Madison Gas & Electric infrastructure, the city is not taking an active role in deployment. No taxpayer money is being spent on the wireless infrastructure—services will ultimately paid for by the customers—and the major decisions about deployment will be made at Cellnet’s end.
As such, it will likely be a few years before most Madison residents could add ubiquitous Wi-Fi as an alternative among more traditional Internet connectivity options like cable, DSL and dial-up.
UW-Madison telecommunications professor Barry Orton, while positive on the project overall, pointed out that areas of the city would vary both in terms of the expense of setting up wireless infrastructure and the density of potential wireless subscribers, with the easiest to serve areas likely being equipped first.
“The city either offers a service or, as in the case of cable and the case of this service, as in the case of electricity, it enables a service by enabling the provider to use public space,” Orton said. “It has an obligation to make sure that as many people are served as possible, and conversely, as few people are unserved as possible.”
Cellnet spokesman Don McDonnell said the company is committed to eventually serving all of Madison, though the final plan cannot be determined until the pilot deployment is evaluated.
Madison Alder Zach Brandon said the market element of the Cellnet deal is not to be overlooked. “In some of the [previous deals] we were looking at, the Internet would be provided by one person, whether it be AOL, Skynet or some other vendor,” Brandon said, contrasting that against Cellnet’s providing of infrastructure and the likely administration of the customer end by third-party internet service providers.
Under this model, Brandon has more confidence that an infrastructure provider like Cellnet could be pressured to expand by ISP’s that see an investment strategy in serving certain communities that a monolithic provider might have overlooked.
Alder Tim Bruer, who has voiced concern about poorer areas of Madison being left behind, said he hopes the city will use access to its property in more lucrative areas a bargaining chip to get Cellnet to go to poorer areas and ensure universal access. “If we would not have required this with cable when cable technology came in, without question areas of south Madison, East Side and North Side would still be without cable today,” he said.
Bruer was quick to add that his concerns about fine-tuning the project should not be construed as an objection to the idea in and of itself, which he sees as a positive step in economic development for the city.
“The critical issue is, we’re not trying to dictate and trying to manipulate the private sector,” said Bruer. “But what we’re trying to do is find a rational balance between those areas that are profit centers and those areas that are less profitable, and for the sake of the public good encourage them to work towards that goal of balancing their cherry-picking of certain areas with picking up some areas that are less profitable.”