Last month, after EarthLink officially defaulted on its contract with the city to provide municipal WiFi and paid a $5 million penalty for doing so, the city announced a pilot project to provide WiFi hotspots in certain neighborhoods, to be paid for with that EarthLink cash. That plan is now moving forward.
On Monday, Mayor Bill White announced the city will use about $3.5 million of that money to build 10 free wireless network "bubbles" in low-income parts of Houston to give residents access they otherwise might do without.
The long-term possibility, White said, is that the bubbles could be connected and the areas between them added to the network, providing WiFi access across the city.
"It's a matter of connecting those bubbles," White said.
Monday's announcement launched the first bubble in the densely populated Gulfton area of Southwest Houston. The city is establishing a committee to determine where future networks will be located. Build-out is expected to happen over the next two years.
To expand the network beyond the first 10 bubbles will require partnerships with other private businesses, said [Craig Settles, an independent municipal wireless consultant and author of two books on city WiFi]. He suggested deals with area hospitals, which tend to be spread throughout the city and might have interest in establishing a network to communicate with ambulances, clinics, doctors and patients citywide.
Last week, the city finished the formal process of requesting information from potential service providers about how it might build out the network, said Richard Lewis, director of the city's information technology department. The city likely will ask for bids to build the remaining nine networks, maintain them, provide technical support for users and create a system for businesses to advertise on the network, potentially building revenue for operational costs, he said.
Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Verizon Wireless and Tropos Networks -- which donated equipment for the Gulfton network -- are pilot sponsors. HP will help develop an "affordable computer purchase plan," according to a news release.
In addition to installing Internet service, the city is working with social service groups to provide computer access and training for users. Each bubble will include about 15 public access points at schools, city facilities and community organizations within the area.