Free WiFi to come to Austin

And the march to municipal WiFi takes another step forward in Austin.

The city is partnering with Cisco Systems Inc., the largest maker of computer networking equipment, and the World Congress of Information Technology on the project. Cisco will donate nearly $700,000 worth of wireless-networking equipment for the new network to the group hosting WCIT, an international gathering of technology leaders in Austin in early May.

But the network will live on. With Cisco’s equipment and engineering assistance, the city’s communications and technology management department and Austin Energy will build and maintain the network, which will deliver high-speed Internet access to attendees at the technology convention and, ultimately, to various city workers, the general public and to academic and private researchers.

Mayor Will Wynn said the network helps Austin in several ways, expanding broadband Internet access to more residents, helping city services do their jobs better and serving as a potential test laboratory for new wireless applications, services and companies.

Glyn Meek, CEO of the WCIT Austin organization, said discussions about building the network have been under way for nearly a year.

“We always have wanted to leave behind a legacy to the city,” Meek said of WCIT, which is held in a different city every two years. “This was in the back of our mind as an appropriate thing to do. This will be of lasting benefit to the city.”

The wireless network will be built in three stages. The first stage, covering lower downtown will be completed by mid- to late April in time for the technology meeting. It’s designed to provide almost continuous broadband Internet access to attendees at the convention whether they are in seminars at the Austin Convention Center, at their downtown hotels or in the Warehouse and Sixth Street entertainment districts downtown. The East Austin and Zilker Park stages will be completed during the summer.

“Our delegates live and die and breathe by (Internet) connectivity, and this provides them with continuous connectivity for all their stay,” Meek said. “Cisco has absolutely stepped up to the plate for this and so has the city. This has been a great team effort.”


[Austin Chief Information Officer Peter] Collins said his existing staff can maintain the network without additional spending. Cisco, he said, has agreed to help maintain the network for its first few years of operation.

Alex Cavalli, director of Austin’s Digital Convergence Initiative, says he expects the network to become a valuable resource for the public, for the city and for researchers and entrepreneurs.

“There is a whole array of uses from practical city services to research and new business development,” Cavalli said.

Let’s see…you’ve got your public/private partnership, your investment in municipal infrastructure, your upgrade of your city’s appeal for visitors and potential new residents, including other businesses…yep, I think we’ve hit all the high points here. This project differs from the one in Houston in that it’s a temporary setup for a convention that will be made permanent, and will be actually free to use for those in its area instead of low-cost. I think the very nature of this kind of thing means that you’ll see a variety of ways in which it’s brought about. By working with the WCIT, Austin was able to capitalize on a unique situation and take full advantage of it. Kudos to them for it.

I hope that by the time either the Lege or the Congress gets around to contemplating another anti-municipal WiFi bill like we did here last year, that enough cities will have at least a solid implementation plan already in place, so that the outcry will be as loud and broad-based as possible. I figure the more this is a fait accompli, the less there is that can reasonably be done to stop it.

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