23 Oct Will wireless Internet bypass the central city?
Milwaukee, Wis – For Milwaukee’s forthcoming wireless Internet service, everything seems to be set.
The City of Milwaukee has finalized a contract with Midwest Fiber Networks, LLC to build a citywide wireless Internet network. Taxpayers are off the hook because Midwest Fiber will invest the $20 million needed for build out, and the locally-owned company has begun to install antennas in a demonstration area containing Marquette University.
If all goes as planned, Milwaukee will be completely wireless by March of 2008, months before the nation selects its next president.
Both the city and Midwest Fiber have been touting the economic benefits of affordable, high-speed Internet connections, but there’s at least one catch, according to Mary Glass, chair and CEO of Campaign Neighborhood, an organization that has developed a five-year inner-city wireless initiative to ensure that 250,000 people of color and working poor citizens of Milwaukee are ready for Wireless Fidelity, or “Wi-Fi.” If wireless Internet service is to have the citywide economic impact that civic leaders anticipate, Milwaukee’s poorest residents will need access to computer hardware and literacy training.
In her view, it does little good for Milwaukee’s poorest residents to have wireless Internet service in their homes and businesses if they can’t afford the training or the hardware, which includes laptops, smart phones, personal digital assistants, or personal computers with wireless modems.
Amid all the self-congratulation, Glass worries that the city could miss a golden opportunity to boost economic development in the central city neighborhoods, and perhaps begin to erode the cycle of poverty and violence that undermines them.
“Once it’s up, it’s all about the end-user,” Glass said, “and are you preparing all the end-users for some type of digital literacy standards and best practices?”
Glass half empty?
Glass does not believe the digital inclusion (aka digital divide) provisions of the city’s agreement with Midwest Fiber are sufficient to fully leverage wireless Internet in Milwaukee. She cites the limited economic ability of some African American, Hispanic, and white citizens to afford wireless devices, the training to use them, and the still-to-be-determined monthly service fee they and other residents will pay to Internet service providers (ISPs).
Campaign Neighborhood has selected the Milwaukee Public Library system as the quickest way for people to access the city wireless network, but it also is researching the use of Milwaukee Public Schools, Milwaukee Area Technical College, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for literacy training and connectivity. While there are PCs available for public use in the city’s libraries, Glass said budget cuts have limited hours of service and staffing available to promote computer access and literacy.
The digital inclusion provisions in the city’s contract with Midwest Fiber guarantee free access to 60 websites, mostly government agencies and social service groups, as part of a “Walled Garden.” They also include a $150,000 seed allocation that will go into a contributory fund for digital inclusion.
According to Donna Rafaelli, a partner with Midwest Fiber, the fund would be managed by a board consisting of representatives of the city, Midwest Fiber, and other organizations. Rafaelli said the fund will be part of a campaign to generate additional money for what she called the missing pieces – training, hardware, and access to equipment. “We’re still in discussions about this,” she said. “It’s a little early yet to clearly define that.”
Rafaelli also noted that Midwest Fiber, a woman-owned company, is in talks with community groups to set up training and job mentoring programs with the goal of creating job opportunities for minorities and women. Midwest Fiber has said the wireless initiative would enable it to hire 15 to 20 more workers, but Rafaelli said the company still is working to identify the precise number of people and the types of positions that will be created.
She indicated that Midwest Fiber will learn more about its future labor needs as part of the installation and logistical work in the demonstration area.
Other potential funding sources for digital inclusiveness might include the city budget. In return for use of city facilities such as the light poles and electric poles that some 2,500 antennas will be fastened to, Midwest Fiber has agreed to share a small percentage of the gross revenue it will gain from leasing space on the network to ISPs. The company will share one percent of its revenue from wireless with the city in years four through six of the agreement, and three percent annually in years seven through 14.
Sharon Robinson, director of the Department of Administration under Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, indicated that this revenue is not part of the digital inclusion allocation, but Glass would like the city to consider using it for computer literacy and other needs. Also to provide what’s needed, Glass suggested the city pursue a public-private partnership with $5 million in contributions each from city coffers, Cisco Systems, and TCF Bank. The two companies reportedly guaranteed the Milwaukee wireless system would be completed if Midwest Fiber cannot finish it.
Campaign Neighborhood had the ear of some elected officials, including State Rep. Jason Fields, D-Milwaukee. Fields, who represents part of Milwaukee’s north side in the State Assembly, said it’s important that the wireless initiative was launched. He wants the city to see it through, but added that some of the attention should shift to attacking the digital divide.
“Now we’d like to see us hammer home the digital divide and expose the rest of the community to this technology,” Fields said.
In terms of economic development, Glass has seen the central city bypassed too often, and she doesn’t want to see this opportunity wasted. “We can’t miss this one,” she said.
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