Athens Inspires Public WiFi

Built up around the land grant university chartered there in 1785, Athens, Ga. is a college town, pure and simple. If it's known nationally, it's for being home to neo-hippie pop bands REM and the B-52s. But on an April morning in 2002, the University of Georgia quietly started a telecommunications revolution, introducing the nation to the idea of municipally-sponsored wireless technology -- WiFi, a technology that prognosticators, major media, and ambitious politicians world-wide are hailing as the Next Big Thing in the evolution of the Internet.

Why is WiFi so hot for so many different constituencies? Ask the folks in Athens. "Information used to be a destination," says Dr. Scott Shamp, director of the University of Georgia's New Media Institute (NMI), which led the town's WiFi project. "The weird thing about wireless is that it shifts that relationship: information is not a destination anymore. It's a companion."

Cities across the country, including Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Boston, are currently exploring their wireless connectivity options. The most promising of the initiatives, Philadelphia Wireless, is using the same technology developed in Athens and licensed from the University of Georgia. At the NMI they call it "The Cloud."

The NMI, itself established in April 2000,was the University of Georgia's attempt to help people understand what to do with the powerful new medium called the Internet. Set up as a traditional teaching and research unit, the department changed direction in April of 2001, following a research retreat in which 30 "cool people" from around Athens -- artists, business leaders, government officials, university faculty and staff -- spent two days answering the question, "What technologies are going to have the biggest impact in the next three to four years?" Their answer: Wireless Internet connectivity -- or what the NMI dubs "mobile media."

A creative approach

Initially, Shamp says, the NMI's approach to wireless was going to be "the standard academic way - we were going to do studies and we were going to do questionnaires, we were going to do interviews. It was the way that professors always approach things.

"But we had a group of students come in -- music students, a romance language student, a computer science student -- and they said, 'If you're going to talk the talk of wireless you ought to walk the walk,'" Shamp says. "They said for very little money, we can make a wireless cloud over downtown Athens. I said, 'How much money?' They said 500 bucks. I said, 'Done.'"

In a few short weeks, the first wireless Internet transmitter box was hung on a telephone pole at the corner of Clayton and College Streets, invisibly connecting anyone drinking coffee in a nearby café or lounging on a sidewalk bench -- with a computer and wireless network card -- to the Internet.

"The technology really is fairly easy to understand," says Shamp, who happily admits he didn't know how any of the stuff he was buying actually worked at the time. "The students cobbled together a couple of Linksys [wireless router] access points for 150 bucks, we got a weatherproof box, we bought some antennas, hung it on a pole in downtown Athens."

As often happens when you make history -- particularly if an international news network is in your backyard -- the national media quickly took notice. CNN's technology program, Next@CNN, first reported on the Athens project at the end of July, at a time when The Cloud, initially dubbed the WAGZone (for Wireless Athens Georgia Zone) covered just three blocks. CNN repeated the story for weeks. The little town of Athens had become an international phenomenon.

And the city paid attention to its newfound celebrity.

"We always try to develop close relationships to the University," says Jeff Montgomery, a spokesman for Athens-Clarke County government. "The NMI has worked really well reaching out to the community, and we saw it as an opportunity to tap into innovation. And since it's free for the public, it branches out into some quality-of-life issues. It's a neat thing for Athens to develop and be known for."

Shortly after the media coverage appeared, representatives of Athens-Clarke County's Computer Information Services Department visited the NMI, paving the way for the second access box to be installed, in April 2002, using county resources. A few months later, the ACC Board of Commissioners agreed to endorse and help operate the WAGZone for a year.

BellSouth, which provides phone and dial-up Internet service in Athens, has had a mutually supportive relationship with the NMI since 2000. "We were actually one of the first corporations to give a gift to NMI," says BellSouth spokeswoman LeAnn Boucher. "We gave them about $6,000 back in 2000 to help get them funded."

The WiFi fine line

Similar projects are underway across the country, ranging from projects that follow the Athens model, like those in Cerritos, Ca. and Nevada, Mo., to full-scale municipal projects like those planned in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Austin. But Shamp sees a fine distinction between small projects like Athens' and large-scale, high-profile operations.

Not all approaches to municipal wireless are feasible according to proponents of the Athens model, though. Using government money to build a wireless cloud over a city, Shamp says, can force a competitor service to end up paying for WiFi through the taxes they pay the city. "It's not right to take government money and compete with a business," he contends.

It seems BellSouth agrees. Boucher says BellSouth considers The NMI Cloud "completely different" from other municipal wireless scenarios being considered across the country. "It's not competitive, it's just a great way to study the way people are going to use mobile technology," she says. "It's a great research bed for us."

And that research seems to be paying off -- BellSouth recently introduced a mobile Internet service in Athens using radio spectrum to deliver broadband connectivity. "It requires a modem that is plugged in, so it's not like a WiFi product," says Boucher. "But since you don't need to have a phone line, you can take it with you from apartment to dorm, but not to the local coffee shop. It's very cost-effective when compared to other broadband products."

At $29.95 per month for its cheapest mobile service, BellSouth does offer a strong alternative to cable DSL, which in Athens costs $49.95 (or $89.95 for the least expensive television/Internet service package) through Charter Communications -- and requires that you keep rooted in one spot.

A looming threat to the telecom status quo?

But true high speed connectivity, which makes downloading video a snap and promises to allow free international calls for WiFi-equipped cell phones, constitutes a direct threat both to phone and cable television revenue. And the larger the market, the more that's at stake.

Municipal wireless advocates argue that telecom companies like Time-Warner, Charter Communications, and Verizon have an effective duopoly over Internet connectivity. Blocking municipal wireless programs is a necessary business strategy for companies heavily invested in keeping access both expensive and limited.

At their fastest, most cable and phone-based services run at just one-tenth the speed of the fastest WiFi connections. Even Charter's WiFi service, a pay-as-you-go offering provided through partner MobilePipes Inc., maxes out at 1.5 megabits per second (mbps). This is paltry compared to WiFi's potential 15mbps. And starting at $9.05 per hour, it can hardly be called competitive.

Shamp, however, is not convinced that big telecom has much to worry about. "[The Cloud] is not a replacement for anybody's regular connectivity. Most city-run wireless service is run by volunteers or, at most, folks who see the service as an adjunct, not a substitute for more reliable networks maintained by those who are actually in those businesses to make money." He has a point: among the truly tech-savvy, wireless networks are considered nonsecure, intended for convenience -- checking email, for instance -- rather than for banking or other more sensitive activities.

Pro-municipal wireless legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate and anti-municipal wireless legislation introduced in the House give an indication of how heated this fight might get as the anticipated re-write of the 1996 Telecom Act gets underway. Congress is just the latest battleground, however. Late last year, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law -- supported by Verizon's cell phone division -- requiring municipalities to seek permission from their local telecom provider before building an Athens-like network. (As part of the deal to pass the law, Verizon approved of Philadelphia's decision to create such a network).

Shamp, for one, sees all this as little more than growing pains.

"I believe pretty soon we're going to consider connectivity free. We're going to have such an expectation that if you have a business built on trying to sell connectivity, that's going to be really tough," he says. "I think where people are going to start to build sustainable businesses will be off the information that they're selling to people."

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