Knowledge@W.P. Carey, February 1, 2006 - Cities Peg Wi-Fi as Next Must-Have Amenity

I was recently interviewed for an article in the Knowledge@W.P. Carey magazine published by the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University:

Robert St. Louis, professor of information technology at the W. P. Carey School of Business, adds that Wi-Fi is just one step in the right direction. “It’s part of the equation,” he says. “Free or low-cost connectivity plus a low-cost computer plus freeware equals the end of the digital divide.”

St. Louis recalls watching a teacher in a financially struggling city school “beg” and scramble for computer equipment to use in the classroom. “Having computers in kids’ hands, and having those kids connected, would allow this teacher to do so many things he can’t do now,” St. Louis says.

It is this kind of philanthropy that fuels NYCwireless, the non-profit organization that has been promoting and establishing public-access Wi-Fi hotspots throughout Manhattan since 2001. “Just as parks have benches and trees, community wireless is a community benefit,” says Dana Spiegel, executive Director of NYCwireless.

Spiegel explains that his group started deploying community wireless in parks and open spaces as a good-neighbor effort, but the group has evolved to also offer access to low-income households that can ill afford the monthly broadband fee. “To raise the family up in terms of lifestyle and resources, they need Internet access,” he says.

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In Tempe, Ariz., city managers are relying on a private company, MobilePro, to deploy and maintain a wireless network that will be available to the city departments for free and to citizens for reduced subscription fees. “About the time you get this thing built out, WiMax is going to come along,” says Bank One’s Clark. “What leverage does Tempe have to go to their provider and say, ‘Well, now you have to switch to WiMax.’”

NYCwireless chief Spiegel doesn’t view obsolescence as a significant risk, just a circumstance to be factored into the deployment. Spiegel points to the strategy Philadelphia will follow with Earthlink at the helm of that city’s project. “They have a model for how often network equipment will have to be replaced and an estimation of the lifespan of the technology,” he explains. “Wi-Fi is going to be around for the next decade, and over the next five years, it will transform quite a bit. You build that into your plan.”