As longtime readers and local voters know, I’m a strong advocate for bringing community-owned information infrastructure to Chapel Hill. Simply, to create a truly free new Town Commons benefiting our citizenry.

I’ve been working the issue now for over three years – banging the drum of strategic economic stimulus, social improvement – bridging the “digital divide” – and governmental innovation.

Local naysayers, like Councilmembers Strom and Kleinschmidt, continue, at least for now, to impede a tactical approach to building up Chapel Hill’s information infrastructure.

I’m a results oriented guy. I like to think that these folks, when faced with success after success, will eventually join in and seize this cost effective opportunity to kick start a key economic driver for Chapel Hill’s healthy future.

To that end, I’ve provided example after example, here and abroad of how a municipal network catalyzes a community’s innovative drive.

Two years ago I started talking about St. Cloud, Florida’s plan to provide free and ubiquitous connectivity to their community of 8,500 households.

Sep. 11, 2006, just prior to asking Council, again, to get the muni-networking ball rolling, I posted on St. Cloud’s wildly successful six month anniversary (Municipal Wifi: St. Cloud on Cloud Nine).

“So let the naysayers and talking heads let fly, but the little secret that is secret no more is that the results of a carefully planned and deployed municipally owned system delivered free to the citizens as a public service is actually the most successful, beneficial and effective model in existence.”

So says Jonathan Baltuch, who help found MRI, a consultancy specializing in planning economic development strategies for municipalities.

March 6th, 2007 marked St. Clouds’ community-owned network’s first year anniversary.

How are they doing?

MuniWireless says One year later, St. Cloud citywide Wi-Fi network shows impressive results:

St. Cloud, Florida’s network has received so much press because it is one of the few city-funded, city-owned networks in the US and it provides free Internet access to residents and businesses. Although the city owns the network, it has outsourced operations and maintenance to HP.

Jonathan Baltuch, founder of MRI, the consultant to the city, says: It is therefore fitting that at this year’s Muniwireless conference in Dallas the Cyber Spot celebrates its first anniversary on March 5, 2007. Being a pioneer with the first municipal owned system of its kind (although dozens of other communities are following suit), the Cyber Spot was immediately the subject of attack by the incumbents who were terrified by the prospect of communities taking back their digital rights. All throughout this year, while rumors and misinformation flew across the net fueled by various dubious sources, St. Cloud went about its business of providing its citizens with a premium quality service that saved the residents millions of dollars, eliminated the digital divide and created economic, educational and social opportunities for the citizens of the community.

Another by-product of this effort is that the city collected a comprehensive database of real world statistics and system information on the network.

Baltuch adds: The uptake rate of 77% is impressive when you consider that fee-based networks are attempting to reach uptake rates of about 20%. Incumbent broadband providers of cable and DSL rarely break 30% in any area after many years in the market. If the goal is true digital inclusion then reaching 20% – 30% in a community is unacceptable. This is why municipalities should be directly involved in providing this alternative service, hopefully for free, but at minimum for an extremely low cost.

Indeed, those who say that a municipally owned broadband network can never deliver good service are simply wrong. Many of the critics of municipally owned broadband mischaracterize the networks as being run by city employees who have no experience in delivering broadband service. In reality, most cities that fund and own the network, outsource the deployment, operations and maintenance to private companies. St. Cloud’s partner is HP.

At the end of 2006, Novarum, an independent wireless testing company, surveyed cellular and Wi-Fi broadband networks across the US. They ranked St. Cloud’s network no. 1 (and the only one with 100% service availability) ahead of Sprint, Verizon, AT&T, Earthlink and many others.

Why St. Cloud must be breaking the bank to provide this level of service! Afraid not:

The Capital expense was funded through the local economic development fund. The annual operational expenses are funded through the internal savings to City operations, which exceed the annual cost of operations.

That is the same argument local advocates have been making all along.

We could’ve been St. Cloud. We could’ve, and can still be, a competitive contender in the networked world.

You think Chapel Hill is safe? St. Cloud is in Florida – too far away to snatch North Carolina mind share.

As reported in today’s MuniWireless Greenville, North Carolina rolls out downtown Wi-Fi hotzone

The size of the coverage area is 1.3 square miles (3.3 square kilometers). It encompasses City Hall and the Pitt County Courthouse. This area is home to many businesses and the town commons where concerts are held in the spring and summer.

If the city decides to roll out a network that covers the entire community the area of coverage will be 31 square miles (80 square kilometers), and the initial cost estimate is approximately $2.5 million. The cost of the test bed is $51,000. It utilizes an existing Internet connection of 6mb down and 1mb up. The systems integrator/ISP is WindChannel out of Raleigh, NC and they are installing a Nortel Networks solution using 7220 access points and a 7250 centralized controller.

Greenville.
North Carolina.
Home of East Carolina University.

Eating Chapel Hill’s lunch.

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