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Augusta latest city to try out municipal Wi-Fi

Augusta, Ga., is the latest city to give public Wi-Fi a go. But can the small city succeed where the big ones have failed?

The news out of Long Island was not good this month. As was the news from Boston. And from Philadelphia.

All around the country, heralded public Wi-Fi programs are stalling and failing. Service providers that partnered with cities to maintain the systems are running for the hills. Projects are inflating in cost. In Boston, fundraising efforts have come in wildly below estimations.

In short, what seemed like such an obvious, forward-thinking project has become an administrative and bureaucratic nightmare.

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Philadelphia: The city that loves wireless
"A lot of mayors got themselves in trouble making promises," said Phillip Redman, a research vice president at Gartner Inc. "It's as political as it is a technological issue."

But as these projects falter, a small southern city known for its golf tournament is giving Wi-Fi a shot. The twist in Augusta, Ga., is that public funds, including a state grant, will be used to build the wireless infrastructure.

"We have the capital," said Gary Hewett, assistant director of information technology for the city, which is most closely associated with the annual PGA Masters Tournament. "We have the vertical assets, being street lights and poles and traffic lights and such."

Armed with a $500,000 state grant and $800,000 of city funds, Hewett said the city will install access points covering four square miles of downtown in the 200,000-resident city. Hewett said he expects to install about 30 access points per square mile. Earlier this month, the city issued a request for proposal (RFP) for a service provider to buy the network -- for a cost of $1 -- and provide and maintain subscriptions to residents and visitors.

"Their return on the investment is almost immediate due to the fact that we're using seed money to bring them to Augusta," Hewett said. "We just need a company that will come in and own the system."

Hewett described the city's RFP as "proactive," intended both to woo service providers who may see the municipal network as competition and to make the seriousness of the city's intentions clear.

The RFP has drawn interest from a number of major providers, including Comcast Corp. and Charter Communications Inc., Hewett said. A bid award is expected by the end of May. Access points will be installed during the summer. If the timeline holds, Augusta's downtown wireless will be operational by fall.

Augusta is asking that the winning bidder cover all of the four square miles, meaning subscribers could hook up even while parked in vacant lots. Bidding companies are also asked how much profit they expect and what plans for expansion they have.

Redman was not aware of Augusta's plans, but he said he was skeptical about the success of any municipal wireless project.

Ticking off a list of barriers, Redman argued that cities should scale down their wireless ambitions, making Internet access available in a reasonable amount of public places, like parks and libraries.

A lot of mayors got themselves in trouble making [Wi-Fi] promises.
Phillip Redman
research vice presidentGartner Inc.
"It doesn't need to be every square inch of the city," he said. And in many cities it probably couldn't be. Redman said service providers won't find an ROI on running a city wireless network. Consumers, he said, have numerous other options for Internet access in and outside their home.

And though the free installation of access points certainly eases the sting, Redman said the most expensive part of providing wireless is still backhaul, the cost of moving information around.

Add to that the proliferation of Wi-Fi, sometimes free, at private businesses, and municipal Wi-Fi becomes even less attractive to service providers, Redman said.

"It's really complementary to other services, whether it's selling coffee or hamburgers or selling rooms at night in a hotel," he said. "The problem is there are lots of alternatives and it's not really the core competency of the city to provide those services."

Hewett said he has "paid close attention" to the Wi-Fi failures of other, larger cities and sees a silver lining in the debacles.

"At least the rest of the country and the market has learned a lot from it," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Zach Church, News Writer

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