Friday, July 2, 2004

Let's turn our city into a free wi-fi hot spot

Maggie Downs

I am not the most wired person in the world. I do not have cable. I have no phone line. And I am not connected to the Internet. In fact, I'm a lot like the Unabomber, minus one crazed manifesto.

But even I know how important wi-fi is to Cincinnati.

Wireless Fidelity allows anyone to connect to the Internet without any wires - from your bed, at a hotel, even a coffee shop. The technology is kind of like a cell phone - wi-fi-enabled computers send and receive data anywhere within the range of a base station. And then little elves run through the wires and make it all happen. (Hey, I don't totally understand this stuff.)

Wi-fi does come with limits. You can hook up only if your computer is fitted with wi-fi certified software. Even then, you can connect only in places equipped with wi-fi access.

Still, places all over the world are using this technology to lure young Internet-savvy folks and to satisfy work-centric business people.

Beaches all over the United States - including Hermosa Beach, Calif. - are completely wi-fied. The people of Auckland, New Zealand; Pune, India; and Adelaide, Australia, can wi-fi to their hearts' content.

Even the 20,000 people of Post Falls, Idaho (yeah, I'd never heard of it either), are using wi-fi to their advantage. Police there spent slightly more than $200,000 for the rapid connection of wi-fi so roaming officers can check on subjects' records or quickly communicate with headquarters.

A great idea, no?

In Ohio, Columbus is fairly connected, ranking 36 out of 100 on Intel's Most Unwired Cities Survey. And Cleveland is supposed to be completely unwired by 2006 through the city's OneCleveland project, which will bring free wireless broadband to more than 1,500 institutions and organizations and every member of the community.

But here in Cincinnati, you would think we're all dialing-up via my old dinosaur of a Power Mac 5200. While technology is progressing quicker, we're moving even slower.

City Councilman David Pepper took a great big step by suggesting we hook up our parks with wi-fi. On June 8, Piatt Park downtown was the first to become a wireless hot zone.

The catch is that we're expected to pay to connect through a provider that charges about $5 an hour - $20 for a monthly pass.

That's like paying for a cocktail wiener on sample day at the grocery.

No, we need wi-fi all over, and we need it to be free.

"Wi-fi-ing the entire urban core would cost about 500K (chump change for these guys) with an annual upkeep cost of about 35K," wrote former City Council hopeful Nick Spencer on his blog. "The city could make that money back through pop-up advertising, while the economic impact would be immeasurable.

"Instead, we get this crappy, half-baked, over-priced idea."

Several places throughout the Tristate already offer wi-fi for free, like Hamburger Mary's, the Brew House, Panera Bread and McCluskey Chevrolet's car service waiting room.

But we need more.

The University of Cincinnati's Tony Grubesic, an assistant professor of geography, published an article in this month's Journal of Urban Technology detailing the uneven roll-out of wireless services in the Cincinnati area with results suggesting that a new, wireless "digital divide" may be emerging.

"Providers tend to 'cherry pick' an area," Grubesic said.

Wireless providers often connect affluent areas first. That's why in Grubesic's research he found relatively high rates of wi-fi use and provision in Hyde Park and relatively low wi-fi usage in the West End.

I don't know much about technology, but I know this: The beauty of the Internet is how it can connect everyone everywhere.

We can't afford to have any more division in our city. And we can't afford to delay this connection here anymore.

Turning Cincinnati into a free wi-fi hot spot is the best way now to get young professional people out of their apartments and into the coffee shops, restaurants, parks and bars - even if it is only to use the computer.

And then everyone can see that Cincinnati is not just cool.

We're virtually cool.


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