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Coming unwired

California’s capital city may soon pull off what other big cities, including tech-savvy towns like San Francisco, have been unable to: provide free, high-speed Internet access to every citizen.

A city-wide Wi Fi network would mean that anybody, anywhere in the city, would have access to the Internet–at home, at the office, in the park, in your favorite bar, even your car.

The city has two bidders vying for the contract to blanket the capital city’s approximately 100 square miles with the high-speed Internet service. One is AT&T, the other is a consortium of tech firms and nonprofits called Sacramento Metro Connect.

The Sacramento City Council is expected to make its decision by June.
In exchange for letting the company use city utility poles and buildings to mount their Wi Fi equipment, the city wants a level of unlimited free, high-speed Internet access for anyone who logs on in the city. The city also is requiring the successful bidder to include the whole city, and to cover low-income areas that other telecom and cable companies have historically avoided when building their networks.

“We could be the first city in the nation to provide free Wi Fi to all of its citizens,” said JoAnn Fuller, with California Common Cause. Her organization has been dogging the city government for two years to make sure the gets a good deal on its Wi Fi contract.

Two years ago, the city decided it had a bad deal on its hands.
At that time, Sacramento was close to awarding the contract to company called MobilePro, which offered a limited number of free accounts to city agencies and a very restricted layer of free access to city residents.

The free service would have only allowed a user to log on once a day–for a maximum of two hours. And the connection speed was to be a sluggish 56k, no better than dial up.

Citizen groups like Common Cause and Access Sacramento, along with tech-savvy City Council members like Rob Fong and Kevin McCarty, torpedoed the plan as being a giveaway of the city’s lucrative “right-of-way,” the permission to use city property to install the transmitters that make up the network.

But the city reopened negotiations with MobilePro, asking for more free access. “That’s really what stopped the deal with MobilePro,” said Sacramento City Council member Fong. MobilePro balked, and left town.

“I’ve got to praise Sacramento for being really tough, really detailed and asking all the right questions,” said Anne-Marie Fowler, a principal with SeaKay, the nonprofit member of Sacramento Metro Connect. Tech companies Cisco, Intel, IBM and Azulstar are also part of the consortium.

“Any area that’s populated will have access points,” said Fowler of her group’s bid. She added that, if awarded the contract, the free layer will be fast enough to handle most routine tasks. “You won’t be able to do major gaming on it. But it will be comparable to DSL,” Fowler explained. And the free service would be supported by targeted advertising on the Metro Connect Web portal.

For faster speeds, you’ll have to buy a subscription. “We have a commitment to bringing the Internet to everyone. But we also want to sign up more customers,” Fowler noted.

Fowler said her group can build the network in 18 months after being awarded the contract. That could make Sacramento the first major city to offer city-wide, free Internet access. And that could help close the so-called “digital divide.”
“It could really open the Web to families that previously had no access,” said Fuller.

Sacramento isn’t the first city to try and build such a network, but it’s size and its goal of “universal coverage” could make Sacramento a model for other California cities.

“It will put Sacramento way ahead. There are so many projects that have started by not been finished,” said Fowler.

In San Francisco, a plan being pushed by Mayor Gavin Newsom and Internet giant Google to blanket the city in free Wi Fi appears to be bogged down in disputes on the County Board of Supervisors.

Fuller with Common Cause noted that Wi Fi access doesn’t do you any good if you’ve got no computer, or computer that’s obsolete. Her group now hopes to push the city to get more computers into the hands of low-income residents, and the provide at least some basic tech training.

City leaders are just as interested in how anytime, anywhere Internet connectivity can help boost economic development.

“We’ll be able to tout Sacramento as being ‘unwired’ for business, 24-seven,” said Fong. “A lot of cities have aspired to do it, but we’re actually going to do it.”

Contact Cosmo Garvin at cosmo.garvin@capitolweekly.net


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