Friday, November 13, 2009

Wireless Strings

This was my first major story as news editor of the paper.

Published Oct. 5, 2005, in the Keizertimes

Does a high-speed Internet access for $19.95 a month sound like a bargain? Does it sound like a fantasy?

The idea isn’t outlandish as it might seem, some cities have found. However, residents probably won’t see that kind of pricing if the city of Keizer opts for a private contractor to provide the service rather than doing it as a public utility.

Last November, the city took the initial steps to explore the possibility of blanketing Keizer in wireless access to the Internet, possibly as a public utility. In the intervening months however, city officials have moved away from the public utility approach in favor of seeking a private contractor.

“It’s an interesting concept, but I’m opposed to the city doing it if there is private interest in the work,” said Chris Eppley, Keizer city manager.

Eppley introduced the idea to the city council after reading that the city of Spokane was embarking on a similar venture.

Wireless coverage, using Intel’s WiMAX technology, would allow residents to access the Internet using radio waves from any point in the city using devices such as laptops, palm and even desktop computers equipped with a wireless connection card. Access would be made possible through strategically placed transmission towers throughout the city.

Eppley said the city opted to seek a contractor after determining there would be interest from private companies, but other cities have begun to supply wireless connectivity as a public utility alongside sewer and water services.

With a private organization running the wireless network, Keizerites would likely pay about $35 to $50 per month.

In contrast, other cities the size of Keizer have developed wireless networks as public utilities charging less than $20 a month.

The tale of Moorhead, Minn.

Moorhead, Minn. is nestled along the banks of the Red River across from Fargo, N.D. The town is home to about 32,000 people and has affordable, wireless, high-speed, public access to the Internet supplied by Moorhead Public Services (MPS), the community-owned electric and water utility company.

Bill Schwandt, general manager of Moorhead Public Services, said the process for connecting Moorhead residents began in August 2004. After local private companies failed to show interest connecting the city, MPS decided to take up the slack.

“That’s when we began in earnest researching the possibility, we accepted bids on the set-up and then installed it over the summer,” Schwandt said.

At a cost of about $2 million, MPS blanketed the city in wireless Internet access.

MPS contracted with private entities for help desk services, network monitoring and some private entity Internet service provider hosting. The monthly fee for customers to have unlimited access to the network plus three e-mail accounts is $19.95.

Schwandt said MPS pre-registered about 2,500 residents for the service, which came online last month. Of the initial 1,500 who were sent tickets to sign up, more than 1,200 responded.

Schwandt said for the organization to succeed in supplying Internet access as a public utility, it needs to capture about 38 percent of the high-speed access market within five years.

“All the experts have told us we should hit 35 percent with no problem,” Schwandt said.

Moorhead’s wireless access is made possible by transmission boxes attached to existing utility poles and street lights, sidestepping the need to erect transmission towers.

“They’re hard to see when you’re looking for them much and even less visible when you’re not,” Schwandt said.

Not to say the MPS hasn’t encountered problems during the rollout. Because wireless access relies on radio waves, physical barriers such as trees can get in the way. However, Schwandt said the problems that have cropped up have been easily handled by attaching small, exterior, magnetic antennas to homes.

Curved streets and steel siding also caused unexpected problems, but both were remedied with antennas.

As yet, MPS has not had to hire any additional employees. Schwandt expects that to change, but the utility has already budgeted $600,000 for that purpose.

Currently, MPS contracts with the city of Moorhead and one of their employees oversees the private contractors.

Even though MPS wireless is still in its early stages, Schwandt said the response has been largely positive.

“It’s worked well for the people who are already hooked up. We tell everyone that we’re willing to work with them if they’re willing to work with us,” he said.

No strings attached

Currently the city of Keizer has no plans to open a new utility for the delivery of WiMAX, according to Eppley.

“This doesn’t mean the council won’t at some point decide to explore that option, but it’s not being put on the table at this point,” he said.

Eppley said the city would likely send out bid requests to potential contractors within the next 90 days. Proposals would outline what services would be provided to residents as well as estimates of end-user costs.

“Once the bids are in, it would be up to the city council to decide if this is something it wants to pursue,” Eppley said.

The council would then need to decide what involvement, if any, the city would have in the final services provided.

“There would have to be a clear advantage to the community for the city to be involved. Either the price will have to be significantly lower or the service will need to be significantly better,” Eppley said.

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