November 13, 2008
Bye-bye, bubbles

Well, so much for that.

It began with the best of intentions: A grand plan to blanket the city with a wireless ''cloud" would provide cheap Internet access to the masses.

When that project failed last year, as it did in many other places, the city turned to a new idea: Wireless ''bubbles" could bridge the digital divide in many of Houston's poorest neighborhoods.

But for those who had high hopes that Houston's flirtations with WiFi would give them free home connectivity, that bubble appears to have officially burst.

Instead, the city is using $3.5 million from a settlement with Earthlink to provide computers and free high-speed connectivity to community centers, nonprofit groups and schools.

And because the network will be password-protected, the wireless connection it provides will be cut off from all but those who participate in classes and programs at the locations.


City Councilwoman Wanda Adams, who sits on a committee that oversees the initiative and represents some neighborhoods that could be selected for the program, said she does not understand why, if a network exists, people will not have access to it. "My take is, if I'm a student and I live in an area where there is wireless, I should be able to access it if I live within so many feet."

Adams said she supported the project but planned to meet with its leaders and stakeholders to get more clarity.

Nicole Robinson, project director for the initiative, said that after Earthlink failed to deliver on its promise to set up a wireless network throughout all of Houston, providing access to residents was never a part of the city's revised plan.

"We are making sure individuals who don't have computers in the home, who don't have the skill set or training they need, will have an opportunity to make sure they can receive those services. We want to this to impact quality of life. It's about access with a purpose."

Even if the city wanted to make the wireless connection available to residents, such an expansion could be difficult. If too many people access it, the network could bog down. Some could cancel their Internet contracts with Comcast or AT&T, leading them to depend on the city as a service provider, a development that would significantly drive up costs and expectations.

Under the new initiative, a "Wireless Empowered Community Access Network," or WECAN, will be built in 25 super-neighborhoods, 10 of which should be completed in the next two years. The wireless connections will be available on computers inside 15 community centers, schools and other buildings in each network.

That's not quite what we were expecting when last we heard of this. And it turns out that this isn't the last word on the subject.

In multiple interviews over about a week, Sandra Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the Houston Public Library and Nicole Robinson, the initiative's project director, told me several times that residential access was not part of the plan.

Robinson said the network would likely "pop up" in the neighborhood on a laptop or home computer, as wireless networks do in coffee shops and bookstores, but a user in that scenario would not be able to connect because it would have "secure access," or would be password-protected.

Those who concluded that the network would be available to nearby residents on their laptops or in their homes may have done so because of a "misconception initially," she said, later adding:

"The city definitely doesn't want to become an Internet service provider."

That was one of the main reasons we decided to write an update, since our original story in March indicated that residents in the neighborhoods would be able to connect. It was also an impression shared by City Councilwoman Wanda Adams. Interestingly, a senior staffer for another City Council member who had been briefed by Robinson was under the same impression: that the service would not be available to residents.

This afternoon, about 3:30 p.m., Michael Moore, Mayor Bill White's chief of staff, told me that other city employees in the information technology department have been working separately to ensure that residents can use the WiFi.

So does that mean it won't be password protected, or that the password will be given out to residents who ask for it, or something else? Maybe we need another update. More here.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 13, 2008 to Elsewhere in Houston
Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)