Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Free Wireless In MC

Could MC be joining the enlightened and rolling out free wireless? Well, let's just say .... slowly. WiFi is now available in almost all of MC's public libraries. WiFi has also been made available in downtown Silver Spring. Sort of. Actually, it's just along the streets. Here's a coverage map:

During my time on the county's communications advisory committee, I proposed the deployment of free wireless in all of MC's downtown areas, starting with Rockville. (I figured that would be an easy sell, given the government was based there.) The Executive's representative wasn't receptive to the other idea though, claiming it would expose the county to a lawsuit from its franchisees because of the obvious conflict.

Has some rule bending occurred? Because the county is now clearly taking credit for establishing SS WiFi. A press release subtitled "Montgomery County Wi-Fi Vision" says:
Montgomery County has taken a nationwide leadership position in the use of information technology in providing services to our community. The Community Wi-Fi initiative is designed to leverage the County’s information technology infrastructure further by providing no-cost community Internet access where it currently does not exist – in our open-air public places. Wi-Fi’s rapid adoption by government, business, and individual users creates a ready community of users looking for Internet access wherever they are. The County believes that providing such access may be efficiently and economically accomplished. This endeavor demonstrates Montgomery County’s commitment to the substantial benefits that broadband information access brings to the community.
Leadership? Evidentally, the county hasn't heard of roughly 100 community WiFi projects including some biggies like Philadelphia and Milwaukee. (By the way, Philly is also the headquarters for Comcast.) Philly WiFi covers 135 sq. miles - the entire city of Rockville is less than a tenth that size. Indeed, that would cover more than 25% of Montgomery County!

In fact, telecomm lobbyists are hard at work bending elbows trying to get legislation passed that would prohibit municipalities from offering internet services such as WiFi and some states have already allowed such legislation to pass. (Not Maryland though.) And broadly available WiFi still seems like a fine idea here. Studies strongly indicate that broadband is good for business and can be deployed at little or no cost to taxpayers. And given the lack of businesses offering it, why shouldn't local government step up and offer it?

Silver Spring

So how was Silver Spring chosen for WiFi? According to another press release, County Executive Duncan said "Silver Spring was chosen as our first public outdoor hotspot because of its emergence as the county’s technological and entertainment center."

Technological? I had no idea Silver Spring was a technological center. When did this happen? And I thought Bethesda was supposed to be the entertainment center. Surely $100 million on Strathmore must count for something! Ok, I admit - Strathmore is in North Bethesda but still - when did Silver Spring outdo all the great stuff in Bethesda (and, ahem, South Rockville)?

But the part of the press release I like best is the statement by Alisoun Moore (MC's Chief Information Officer) saying " Ubiquitous internet access is fast becoming a ‘requirement’ in our digital economy..." immediately followed by this:
There are no approval requirements, encryption settings, user names or passwords required and no guarantee of performance privacy or reliability.
So not only doesn't the county understand the meaning of ubiquitous (since availability is obviously only in a tiny area) but neither does it understand requirement since the disclaimer makes very clear there is no guarantee that it will be available when needed.

It's now been 6 months since WiFi was deployed in Silver Spring. Will that ubiquity ever be extended to Rockville? Or that entertainment-black hole of Bethesda? Or anywhere else in the county? Or are we all just technological backwaters?

The answer it seems is only if private companies step forward. As far as I can tell, the only reason MC can take credit for WiFi in Silver Spring is because Atlantech Online is footing the bill for establishing the network and access points. Guess what - their offices are in Silver Spring. Ah, no wonder the county was happy to blithely recast Silver Spring as the technological center of the county!

So there you have it. The county apparently did almost no work other than to draw up the press release. So much for "demonstrating Montgomery County's commitment." Want WiFi in your downtown area or anywhere else in the county? Don't go looking for that vaunted Montgomery County commitment - unless it's a commitment to rename your downtown area the technological center of the county in exchange for your hardware and hard work.


Anonymous said...

So how is wireless "in the street" of much use to anyone except a few people drinking coffee on a bench outside Starbucks (which already has wireless)...

Anonymous said...

Hmm, well Starbucks internet is not free...

But still:
"There are no approval requirements, encryption settings, user names or passwords required and no guarantee of performance privacy or reliability."
I think they meant to say "nor" ?

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I'd like to point out that for most readers of this blog, it is possible to get HSDPA through Cingular or Ev-Do through Sprint and Verizon.

These seem to be good alternatives to a landline cable/internet.