Bring on the Clouds! (Wi-Fi, that is.)

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

In Portland, not many folks have yet heard about something called the "Wi-Fi Cloud". Basically, it's a yet-to-be-funded project to blanket the city in cheap broadband wireless connectivity. Why? To provide high-speed internet to low-income folks; to put the power of Google in the hands of schoolkids everywhere; to bust the digital divide.

From a recent Willamette Week article:

Right now, Qwest will sell you a dial-up account for $18.95 a month. Comcast would be delighted to provide broadband for $55.95. Can't pay? The library is at 10th and Taylor. But picture this: The blip from the Box grows to blanket Portland. The transmission delivers the Internet through thin air, to any desk. boudoir or handheld gadget in reach.

Behind the experiment lies a radical notion: that the Internet is as important to Portlanders as water, power or paved streets. In other words, in the 21st century, the right to Google is as fundamental as the right to an education. "The Internet should work more like a public road and less like an expensive health club," says City Commissioner Erik Sten.

"Look, knowledge is power," [PTP guru Nigel Ballard] says. "It's a cliché, but it also happens to be true. Google is the key to the secrets of the universe, right? For a lot of people, it's just a given. You have water, electricity--and broadband, of course. For a lot of people, life isn't really like that. You can buy a lot of food for $52 a month. You can't eat the Internet. There you have it--less knowledge, less power."

In New York City, there's a political candidate who is staking his future to the idea. Andrew Rasiej (that's "ruh-shay") is running for an only-in-New-York job called Public Advocate. Today, he's launching a campaign called "Wi-Fi NY".

Check out the announcement - it's the best description I've seen yet about why low-cost Wi-Fi should be considered a core issue of civil rights, economic fairness, and educational opportunity.

But in New York City, where nearly two-thirds of our people don’t have access to high-speed Internet, we have no plan or even a commitment get everyone connected. And without a plan to eliminate this digital divide, most experts tell us, we have almost no hope of keeping pace, let alone keeping our place as a world leader. Instead, we will fall farther and farther behind in the race to convince businesses and young people to locate here, to create the high-paying jobs of the future, and to prepare all our people to compete for those jobs.

In particular, we risk dooming hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged children who are on the wrong side of the divide now to second-class status and denying them a fair chance to live the American Dream. These days, if you understand the Internet, you have a ticket to success in our fast-changing information economy; if you don’t, you will be stuck running in place, struggling to get by.

On top of that, because of our leaders’ lack of vision, we are squandering all kinds of opportunities to strengthen our safety, modernize city services, improve our quality of life, and enhance our democracy. Indeed, you don’t have to be Bill Gates to imagine the many tangible benefits we could all reap by creating a universal “Wi-Fi” system here in New York. Among other things, we could: • Give our firefighters the ability to download the blueprints of a burning building on the way to a fire; • Give our residents the ability to receive information and communicate instantly with emergency personnel in a disaster or a terrorist attack – including underground in the subway; • Provide our schoolchildren access to all of the educational resources the Internet offers whenever they need it; • Provide our mass transit riders with real-time updates on arrival times, departures, and service disruptions of subways, buses, trains and ferries; • Connect our patients to a wide-range of valuable medical information, such as prescription drug prices and reviews, reports cards on local hospitals and treatment facilities, and contact information for doctors and service organizations; • Connect citizens to a wide range of valuable public information about their government and enable them to watch and participate in public hearings at their convenience.

Should Portland seriously consider a public investment - probably around $10 million - to build such a network?

Talk to me.

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    The story "The Machine Stops" by E.M. Forester written in 1909 is about the ultimate electronic cottage. He wrote it when he was 30 years old.

    "O Machine! O Machine!" she murmured, and caressed her book of instructions on how to run her machine and was comforted.

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    I generally think should be an all-in or no-in proposition -- either we provide it free or we shouldn't provide it at all. The whole "provide low-cost access" seems to weaken the benefits, while "provide unlimited (free) public access" means that we've created a public good. Were we to have no fees, it would be more cool to tourists, to random folks who want to use it every once in a while, etc. More people would feel like they owned it. It would be more newsworthy, in terms of Portland being good for business, etc.

    When you have fees, it appears more like the government is competing with something the market could provide itself.

    And $10 million isn't very much in a city such as ours -- is that to build it? To maintain it? How big a cloud we talkin' about?

  • Mike Austin (unverified)

    This is a great idea for at least two reasons. It "lifts all boats" in that it provides equal access regardless of income status. It also would put pressure on Qwest, Comcast, et. al. to lower their rates, improve their service, and add services. This is a win for current subscribers. In addition, I certainly wouldn't characterize the current broadband marketplace as competitive and this would definitely add an element of competition to the mix.

    Wireless does have some problems. It is not very secure and implementing what security is available is definitely not a "no-brainer". (I recently installed a wireless router in my home and making it secure was by far the most challenging task.) Also, someone can - and will - correct me if I'm wrong, but the more users there are on a wireless "node" the slower the connection speed will be. For instance, I recently spent several hours in a local cybercafe while my car was being repaired. I could see my connection speed rise and fall as other users came and went. At its worst, with roughly 5 users, the connection speeds were still better than any broadband connection that I could realistically afford. Nonetheless, at the current limits of wireless technology, having hundreds or thousands of users attempting to share a 54 MBPS connection could make us long for the days of 28K modems.

    As long as the city plans for security and technological improvements, they should go ahead, if only to piss off conservatives.

  • iggir (unverified)

    i agree with Mike...piss off the conservatives who want to charge more for something we can provide for less.

    and you're right Mike, what use is a 28k wireless connection when everyone pigpiles on the node.

    but, what the hell, let's figure that out after it's public.

  • Chris Woo (unverified)

    Would I like free wi-fi anywhere I go in Portland? Absolutely. Unfortunately, as mentioned in the previous comments, there are technical and social hurdles galore in such a proposal. Whether free or low-cost, it essentially means the creation of a new public utility (ableit on a smaller scale than the City's proposed PGE purchase) and having to contend with all of the little joys that go with it.

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    No, we should not spend $10 million in public funds. We should give the Portland Telco project at least another year or two to see how far things can go on a voluntary, grassroots basis.

    Free wireless is already available in far more places in Portland than many realize. With the hardware and software solutions becoming more readily available and the information more wide disseminated, I'm convinced the wireless cloud will rapidly expand in the next few years.

    This is one utility that will expand into much of Portland without public funds.

    At most, the City should look to market based incentives to expand the network into underserved areas. After giving the Telco project another 12-24 months (and perhaps some funds), the city can step in and address the remaining holes in the network by providing subsidized hardware and software solutions to private entities (e.g. coffee shops, bookstores, other businesses) who promise to extend the wireless cloud.

  • Joanna (unverified)

    Who's going to buy computers for the masses who can't afford them so they can actually take advantage of wireless access? If we don't have a plan for that, what's the point?

  • Kent (unverified)

    I'm a Portlander who's currently exiled to Texas while my wife completes her medical residency here. Because we live in a rural area I've torn my hair out trying to get decent internet access. Dialup runs at about 12k baud because the phone lines are bad. Cable and DSL don't exist because we are outside their coverage area. Satellite internet costs a fortune and is plagued with problems. I had an IDSD line installed by SBC and that cost about $90/mo for a 112k baud connection. Until finally a local company started putting up wireless internet transmitters on cell phone towers and providing high-speed wireless at $49/mo. It's not the regular wi-fi but rather you put an antenna on your roof and get your internet signal from a tower several miles away.

    After all this struggle, I'd love to have free wireless at my home. But frankly I think it's a bad idea for the city to go down that road simply because of the tragedy of the commons effect. People will abuse it if they don't have ownership and don't pay. If bandwith is truly free and unlimited people will be endlessly downloading video, spammers will set up shop all over Portland, and all sorts of other abuses will follow until service becomes pathetic and erratic and most middle class users who can afford to will opt-out and go with private internet service just to get fast, reliable, and secure service again. Except that it will be more expensive and there will be less options because competition from the free city-run service will kill most local internet providers.

    I think a better approach for a city like Portland is to enact policies that keep private internet service cheap, modern, and full of competition. I can't say what those policies would be but I'm sure there are plenty of ways that city government could encourage a proliferation of fast and cheap internet service.

    As for the poor and kids who don't have internet connection? Well gee, compared to other utilities basic internet is pretty cheap. How many of those poor kids are living in houses that have premium cable and more than one TV? Perhaps a better approach to reach kids would be to have after-school computer labs available in every school library. Let kids stay afterschool under supervision to use computers. Most parents of poor kids would probably jump at the possibility of having their kids in afterschool free computer labs rather than kicking around at home unsupervised. And I remember reading something recently about how the state of Maine has given all school kids free laptops. That seems a better approach than subsidizing free internet for a lot of wealthy urbanites who really don't need it to be provided free.

  • Bill Holmer (unverified)

    It's a much better idea and a lot less expensive than the millions thrown at PGE, PGE Park, the Tram, the Trolley, the Pearl, the South Waterfront, the Convention get the idea.

  • Sid (unverified)

    Would Google be setting up shop in Wasco County if the county didn't have its wi-fi network that it built through a public/private venture?

    Google is promising 100 middle-class salaried jobs there.

    Something to think about when it comes to job creation...

  • bluelady (unverified)

    Here, as well as in Ohio, Texas, etc are folks who want to prevent municipalities from providing broadband or at least make it difficult.

    HB2445 Introduced by Butler (R) and Schauffler (D). Nothing's happened since a hearing in Feb??

    Daily Wireless article

  • Elizabeth (unverified)

    From the statement of the NY candidate:

    "These days, if you understand the Internet, you have a ticket to success in our fast-changing information economy; if you don’t, you will be stuck running in place, struggling to get by." Seems a vast overstatement -- that understanding the internet is a ticket to success?

    I think among those of us who spend a lot of time on line everyday are many who can't imagine life without it and can't envision a successful career without it but I reckon there are plenty of people out there not using it and doing just fine.

    I also think that poor families who value education and are doing what they can to get their kids ahead have found a way to get access for their kids when they need it.

    And for the poor families who don't expect any more from their kids then their parents expected from them -- who have drug or alcohol or mental problems or whatever -- free wireless internet isn't gonna make a damn difference for them. If they get a computer they'll use it primarily for entertainment.

    I've been stuck on this statistic since I read it a couple of weeks ago -- 80% of the world's population has never used a telephone (not that they didn't own one, that they'd never used one).

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    The problem with after-school computer labs and such is that the kids don't have a way home. Many kids rely on a school bus to take them home. Those who stay after-school for tutoring, activities such as band or athletics, to use the library, etc. have to find a way home once they're done.

    This means many kids end up either walking home or skipping the activity.

    It would be great to have labs for kids to use after-school. However, we need to make sure there are a few buses available that would take them home at set times (say 1/2 hour after school gets out, 1 hour after school gets out, 1.5 hours, etc.). This way a child knows they can stay after-school for an hour and then have a ride home.

    When I was in school I was constantly staying after for various activities (typically Academic Decathlon, Math Club, or Honor Society). When my mom came to pick me up she typically ended up with a vehicle filled with my friends who needed rides home. Without that ride, some would have walked more than 10 miles home.

    Laptops for all students would be great. I've discussed this topic several times over at Oregon Live. Several state reps in Texas were looking at this several years back. Studies showed that it was cheaper to replace textbooks with laptops, plus the students would have a computer to use.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    One of the largest problems of our time is the change of government providing opportunities for our lower classes to move up to a better economic status to government providing subsidy for those who already have wealth to keep and expand it - shutting out those who would like to "climb the ladder". It is class warfare on every level. Education is denied to the poor that cannot afford the every more exclusive University system. Education at the High School level is more and more tied to fees for books, and anything extra-curricular. Tax burdens are shifted onto the working poor.

    Why am I writing this here on this topic? Because it fits so closely. The proposal is to have the government subsidize $10 million to set up a system, then however much to maintain it. For whom? Laptops are still very expensive if you make $7.25 per hour. But if you already have wealth, government will cut your monthly expenses by $50 a month or so, and allow you to shift that bill to the taxpayers - again, many of whom cannot afford to participate in the technology they would purchase with their taxes.

    I know that some reading this will be offended. They will see bringing this kind of technology to the poor as the solution and not the problem. That's fine, I am just pointing out that funding this project through taxes that are now increasingly biased to be upon the poor is regressive. Find a new funding method. If this were a new tax upon business, which in Oregon ranks 47th out of the 50 States for paying taxes, then I could go forward thinking this is progressive versus regressive.

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    Steve, we're not just talking about laptops here. If there's a city-wide wi-fi cloud, then anybody anywhere - including people at home, would get broadband internet.

    There are cheap refurbished desktop computers available as low as $200. (And that article was written in 2002.) You can get new brand-name machines at $400.

    Plus, the good folks at FreeGeek are giving away computers to low-income kids as fast as the kids come get 'em.

    For many folks, the biggest barrier to jumping on the internet superhighway isn't the cost of the computer - it's the $53/month cost of broadband. (Remember, that's over $600/yr.)

    Finally, keep in mind that when - suddenly - there's cheap/free, easy, ubiquitous broadband... then, all kinds of things suddenly are possible. Like, say, programs in schools asking people to bring in unused computers to turn them over to schoolkids. There's very little incentive to do that right now - word processing isn't something the kids want to do.

  • LT (unverified)

    Except citywide broadband doesn't help anyone on Steve's side of the mountains, and there are people who are happy to have an old 386 at home and go to the library to look things up on the Internet.

    Yes, I understand the appeal to Blue Oregonians. But there are those who are middle aged and unemployed or under employed who could use $200 to put gas in the car, buy groceries, etc.

    The only reason I even read this topic is that Steve's name showed up under "comments". In some ways this whole discussion shows the divide between employed people in Portland who are very computer savvy, and people in the rest of the state who may be out of work, just scraping by, or not care if they have broadband or an old dialup connection because they are grateful to have any Internet connection at all.

    The Blue Oregon "water cooler" conversation should include those folks and not just employed computer savvy Portlanders.

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    LT... well yeah, a discussion about city-wide wi-fi won't work in Crook County. What's yer point?

    This blog is about everything going on in Oregon, but isn't restricted to only those things that affect all Oregonians. Similarly, we've also recently had posts about fast-food regulations in Sisters, and snow-tire rules as they affect Crook County residents.

    Yeah, we haven't had enough outside-of-Portland stuff, but this is an evolving, volunteer-driven project.

  • Jud (unverified)

    LT, Why wouldn't this work on the "other side" of the mountains? Maybe in the furthest of the sticks it would be problematic, but in most cases as the city gets smaller, the ease of coverage gets easier. Even if a city can't cover all the costs, the fee for subscribers can be less than a dial-up connection. For example, Chaska (pop. 22,000) back in my home state, offers city-wide wireless for $16 or less.

  • Jesse (unverified)

    The City of Portland is getting ready to move on wi-fi throughout Portland, but this will not be free access for everyone. Rather, the city intends to guide the selection of a private company to design, develop, own and operate a citywide, high-speed wireless network.

    The decision to go with a private operator was a long conversation with folks throughout the community--government agencies, non-profits and small businesses. As some people have argued, wi-fi networks are not necessarily a good fit for public sector ownership. This could very well prove true. I don't think we know yet. But, what we do know is that we don't have the millions needed to build a network. We don't have the millions to maintain and upgrade a network as technology improves. The private network ownership provides the quickest rollout--though citywide coverage will take 4-5 years--and will most likely allow for multiple ISPs, driving down the cost and encouraging competition while focusing city investments on a single network.

    Look for the resolution before council here. Attend the council meeting on June 29!

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    No one will need to buy computers for the masses just like no one needed to buy televisions for the masses. As Kari points out, computers are becoming close to appliances, and folks will buy them on their own.

    For those who cannot or do not, there are still public libraries.

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    Jesse, I followed the link but "unwire portland" has no content other than an agenda item, so I apolgize if my questions below are uninformed.

    Why would we want the city to do this: Rather, the city intends to guide the selection of a private company to design, develop, own and operate a citywide, high-speed wireless network.? Can you give us a better sense of what the City is proposing?

    Seems to me like broadband access is increasing rapidly without the City needing to do much other than encourage competition over the main delivery modes (e.g. force cable and telephone monopolies to allow alternative ISPs); and provide modest support to the Telco project.

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    A couple of quick points:

    1) WiMax (the next generate of WiFi) might well be the MOST cost-effective way to connect rural Oregon. It's much more cost-effective than running copper, coax or fiber in sparsely populated areas.

    2) In Portland FreeGeek does an outstanding job of providing low-cost (e.g., free in exchange for volunteer hours) computer hardware. A recent City Club program demonstrated that there are a full range of non-profits that can provide connectivity, hardware and training in computer use to folks who couldn't otherwise afford it.

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    To Paul's 'why would the City do this' question, the City has the opportunity be the anchor tenant, incenting a private party to create the infrastructure and service. The City needs wireless services for parking paystations, emergency services - even Trimet can use it for next arrival displays for transit lines. There is an opportunity for government to reduce its costs for these services while prompting a low-cost service for citizens.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    Kari, LT and others -

    When I wrote my comments about WiFi, I deliberately did not make it an urban/rule issue, as I do not believe that it is. It is my impression that in Crook Co. we are as "wired" as anywhere. In the Crook Co. Democratic Central Committee, only one member, an 85 year old women, doesn't have email. She tried it and didn't like it, being overwhelmed by the junk mail. We have a private subscription based WiFi provider that I can get on my laptop in my living room. My connection is better hard wired through the fiber optic network provided by our local cable TV company, so I use that and then a modem that allows a short range WiFi connection. My connection to the Internet is both faster and more flexible than that of my brother, and several other friends that live in Portland. -- LT, I'm just not so sure that this is a rural/urban or west/east side issue.

    If anything, I wonder if per capita (Kari hates that kind of statistic) we are more wired than in Portland?

    My point, and bottom line, is one of principal. Is it the proper role of government to provide this sort of service with tax dollars?

    Lets go back in time a little -

    When gas was used for heat and light, did government provide a gas connection for every home? No it was private business.

    When electricity became available, did government take it to every home and install it? No, private utilities did most of this. What little was done by public utility districts was not done with "tax" dollars.

    When telephones became available, did the government put a phone on every corner so everyone could make a free phone call? No, private companies did this.

    When television became available, did the government put one in every home, or every 5th home? No, individuals paid for their reception of television.

    Not in Oregon, not in Portland did any of these "utilities" get paid with tax dollars. There were some little dabbles in some of this - there was "rural electrication" where there was some reimbursement for long lines (killed by Ronald Reagan in the 1980's by the way). But in Oregon, we never spent tax dollars on any of this.

    To just step in with tax dollars to provide this service, is to follow the philosophical lead of the Republicans who are using every branch of government to subsidize business by making private costs public.

    Kari - don't be seduced! It's the first step to the Dark Side!

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    Chris, OK. Thanks for clarifying. My answer then is of course why not. This is precisely the sort of public investment to stimulate private action that we need in Portland, and if I can speak more broadly, needs to be part of the progressive agenda for the future.

    <h2>By the way, the SC just ruled that cable companies don't have to share their bandwidth with competitor ISPs. Darn. Bring on the wireless, I guess.</h2>

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