April 12, 2007
Council approves WiFi plan

And the City of Houston WiFi plan moves forward.

Downtown likely will have the first access to the planned wireless Internet network system approved today by the City Council, and the rest of Houston will be added in 100-square-mile sections over two years, officials said.

The council unanimously approved the contract with Atlanta-based EarthLink to build and maintain the system at its own expense, charging Houstonians for access to a network that would be the largest of its kind in North America.

The network's first large customer will be the city itself. The council approved spending $2.5 million over five years for access. Officials say the deal could save the city money over time, because the network could replace other communications providers for municipal services.

Again with the "coulds". I think the city will likely save some money on existing services as it does things like replace wireless cards with cheaper WiFi cards and allows mobile workers to do more from the field. But let's not lose the forest for the trees. The question is whether the gets more value out of this deal than it would have by not doing it. If there's a net increase in expenditures, but a larger net increase in services provided, that's still a win.

Under the contract, the company is working on a tight, 24-month deadline to get the project finished. The company is still negotiating with CenterPoint Energy to place network components on electricity poles.

Some residents and businesses will have access before others, as the system moves toward completion by spring 2009.

"We're not going to wait for all the zones to be completed before we turn it on," said Janis Jefferson, the city's chief technology officer for infrastructure.

Although she and other officials said details of the build-out schedule are still under discussion, downtown has a head start because a smaller wireless system already is in place for new, remote-control parking meters.

I presume we'll see a schedule at some point for delivery dates in different parts of the city. Twenty-four months for the whole thing is pretty darned aggressive. I'll be more than a little surprised if that doesn't slip somewhere along the line.

Meanwhile, Dwight points to this report of municipal WiFi experiences elsewhere, which aren't very good so far. Hard to say how that bodes for Houston, since this is still an emerging thing, but we do know that Earthlink has about 50 million reasons to make a go of this. I still like Dwight's suggestion to bundle WiFi access with existing services, and hope such an offering is forthcoming. We'll see.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 12, 2007 to Elsewhere in Houston