The city’s plan for a Wi-Fi network

The city of Houston is on its way to bringing a WiFi network to town, beginning with the downtown area.

The city of Houston will begin looking in March for a company to not only build a wireless Internet network that blankets downtown, but for that business to pay for it as well.

By having a private company behind the project, Houston Mayor Bill White believes he can avoid some of the battle cries from telecommunications companies opposed to municipal WiFi.

White said no tax dollars would be used to create a broadband wireless network. Instead, the city will issue a request for proposals seeking a company to build and operate it.

In turn, city government would have free access to a variety of broadband applications, like enhanced communications, a high-tech parking meter system and increased telecommuting for city workers.

It could also mean increased Internet access for low-income residents.

The company using Houston’s many easements and right of ways for WiFi antennas and other equipment would then be able to sell its airtime to residents and businesses.

So the city would get free access for itself (thus potentially saving “up to $2 million annually on network costs for mobile devices used by field inspectors, maintenance crews and public safety members”, as noted later in the piece), and whoever wins the contract can then sell the service to residents and businesses in the area. All done without taxpyer funds, too. Sounds pretty decent to me. What do the telcos think?

Telecommunications giants like SBC Corp. and Time Warner, which are locked in a tight battle in Houston and elsewhere to supply high-speed Internet services, have long fought such municipal projects, complaining that they create an atmosphere where government is competing with the private sector.

Such grumblings won’t stop White, who, when announcing his support for Houston’s WiFi project, told a recent gathering of technology leaders that the city would fight back against companies that try to interfere.

In a recent interview, he said companies like SBC or Time Warner have “no good reason to fight it unless we were going to try to finance the system with taxpayer dollars, which we’re not proposing to do. We’re not trying to compete with any private business, and we want to make this technology option available.”

Time Warner and SBC said they are exploring ways they might join with the city on the project, such as providing the high-speed Internet connection. Both companies in general, however, still oppose government involvement in broadband and have supported legislation attempting to ban it.

“Broadband is best left to the private sector,” SBC spokesman Steve Lee said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t be engaged in the process.”

Like SBC, Time Warner is watching closely as the project develops. The company said it is concerned that signals coming from a municipal WiFi network will interfere with its own wireless Internet products used in area homes and businesses.

“We see a citywide WiFi deployment as very problematic for whomever tries to operate such a network because of all the interference issues that will be encountered,” Time Warner spokesman Michael Bybee said.

Something tells me that those complaints will magically melt away if either company winds up making the winning bid.

There’s more to the story, and as exciting as it is to see plans to start soliciting bids in March, it could be five years before anything happens. Longer term, though, this could expand to the entire Houston metro area. It’ll be fun to watch.

Dwight is soliciting comments on this; he’s gotten some decent feedback, so take a look. Take a look also at this nifty interactive map of municipal broadband projects that are already in place or are in the planning stage around the US. It’s no wonder the SBCs of the world have enlisted someone like Pete Sessions to try and keep this genie in the bottle, but based on what I see here, they may already be too late.

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2 Responses to The city’s plan for a Wi-Fi network

  1. ttyler5 says:

    Original post to Dwight Silverman’s Techblog
    Cc: off-the-kuff

    Obviously, the mayor is proposing this because he/the city has already been approached by a company/companies that want to do it.

    Question: is he talking about sharing the city right-of-ways with one company, or with any company that wants to get involved?

    Question: under the mayor’s plan will individual citizens or groups of citizens who would, for example, want to set up a public or a pay wifi network for their neighborhoods also be allowed to use city right of ways?

    Before we get all worked up about how wonderful and far-sighted this is, etc, etc, let’s see what these politicians are actually planning on doing.

  2. Katie says:

    At the P2P litigation summit a few weeks ago we talked about the potential effect that muni-wifi will have on the RIAA and MPAA suits. I’m curious to see whether any provisions will be made to actually track and identify users of the system. There are so many issues I can see potentially coming from that (ie privacy), yet the summit was the first time I’d heard any detailed discussion on it.

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