Commentary: City should go wireless

While this didn’t come from TechBirmingham, it’s worth it for everyone who reads this blog to know of the following commentary. TechBirmingham has been working quietly behind the scenes to make such an idea reality. It is far from easy, but we have made progress.

Just in case you didn’t know, please visit www.BhamWiFi.com for a list of hotspots (317 strong) in the immediate Birmingham-Hoover metro area. We also rank #11 nationally for free hotspots in the CITY of Birmingham (Hoover and Homewood appear in the top 50) according to AnchorFree. Birmingham is host to two very large outdoor hotspots (free, as well) in the form of Vulcan Park atop Red Mountain and Linn Park outside City Hall. We’ve hosted the Angelbeat traveling wireless conference 4 years in a row. And, all of 8 days ago the concept of wirelessly enabling the City of Hoover was a front-page story in the Birmingham News.


The following appeared in the Sunday COMMENTARY section of the Birmingham News, 10 December 2006:

City should go wireless

Sunday, December 10, 2006
JOHN JOSEPH

The stated goals of Birmingham’s city leadership – namely, attracting young professionals, revitalizing the city interior and recruiting 21st-century, high-tech employers – have aligned with the means to achieve those goals: Birmingham’s designation as one of the best American cities to conduct the business of biotechnology, a renewed commitment to revitalizing the city interior from the public and private sectors, and the continuous national emergence of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Birmingham, also named one of the best metro areas to start a business by Inc. Magazine, can cement its reputation as a relevant city in the Information Age and advance its stated goals by soliciting bids to deploy a municipal wireless network. The city, however, must have a public discussion on this question while such a course of action is still regarded as a bold and trendsetting measure.

“Going wireless” now benefits Birmingham in several ways. First, it sends an unmistakable signal that Birmingham understands the needs of the new economy and intends to compete and prosper in these changing times. Secondly, it bolsters the considerable civic efforts by Tech Birmingham, the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Alabama IT Association and others to enhance the city’s reputation among 21st century employers and also attract young professionals, who are the city’s key to prosperity in the 21st century. Thirdly, Birmingham would become one of the first major Southern cities to “go wireless,” demonstrating that it intends to lead not lag in a globally competitive environment. Finally, Birmingham will have the opportunity to learn from other cities’ experiences with wireless networks before pursuing any course of action.

Standard concerns about the networks have been sharply reduced or eliminated entirely by free market competition. For example, cities can ensure that their wireless systems do not become antiquated by requiring providers to maintain and update the wireless infrastructure. More helpful, according to Dave Heck, the deputy information technology manager for Tempe, Ariz., who helped that city deploy a wireless network, is that companies know they cannot afford to let their municipal wireless systems become outdated, lest they gain a bad reputation and fail to win future contracts from other cities. Concerns about confidentiality have also been addressed through modern encryption techniques. Birmingham can become a wireless city at reasonable cost to us taxpayers: feasibility studies cost approximately $50,000-$100,000 and the city may pay the cost of electricity needed to maintain the wireless network (around $500 a month in Tempe). Of course, the city could also use its leverage as a consumer to reduce these financial obligations during contract negotiations with providers. Regardless, the potential gains easily outweigh the potential costs.

At least three viable models have already been instituted to help a city “go wireless” at no cost to taxpayers, save the feasibility study and the cost of electricity needed to run the necessary infrastructure. In Portland, for example, citizens will have free access to wireless Internet due to advertiser-provided revenue. In San Francisco, one company will offer free (but slower) wireless Internet access while another company offers faster, fee-based access. In Tempe, citizens receive free access for defined periods of time in select parts of the city, while multiple companies compete to offer permanent access to residents and visitors to the city.

Given the existence of these models, city leaders should take the following steps to consider whether Birmingham should become the Deep South’s first major wireless city: First, public hearings should be scheduled so that citizens’ voices can be heard and the public benefits and costs weighed. If city leaders then decide to proceed, they should order a feasibility study and demand that it specifically address citizens’ concerns. Assuming the feasibility study justifies moving forward, the City should send a request for proposals that, at minimum, contains the following provisions: No taxpayer-funded expenditures beyond the cost of a feasibility study and electricity for access points, three hours of free access per day for all residents and visitors in Birmingham, the choice of at least three Internet service providers and free access to government Web sites for all citizens of Birmingham. After selecting the proposal most profitable for Birmingham’s citizens, city leaders should award a contract that requires implementation of the wireless infrastructure within seven months of the date the contract is ratified.

If city leadership is willing to support civic efforts by acting decisively on the question of a municipal wireless network, those of us in and around Birmingham stand to profit tremendously. Although proponents of municipal wireless often go too far in asserting that wireless cities necessarily recruit more 21st century tech jobs and young professionals, is it unreasonable to say that such a move signals Birmingham’s intention to compete and thrive in the Information Age?

Perhaps more important, a public discussion about “going wireless” will help us all to think in the manner required to succeed in our changing economy, which could have profound implications for our city planning, school systems, and public infrastructure. It can be said with certainty that such thinking, while not a sufficient condition for prosperity in this new age, is certainly necessary to prosper and effectively confront the false perceptions of Alabama often perpetuated by those knowing very little about the state we proudly call home.

History teaches us that the times sometimes demand action and punish those who choose to do nothing. Because cities that “go wireless” in three years will be perceived as followers, now is such a time. We know the process city leadership must begin to consider whether Birmingham should be a wireless city. We already have a local template for wireless areas at Vulcan. Most important, Birmingham is garnering national attention as a great place to do business in the 21st century. This is the time to begin a discussion of a wireless Birmingham.

John Joseph is a 2006 graduate of the University of Alabama School of Law. He works in Birmingham.

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