Charles Kim sat recently in the Fairfax Regional Library tapping away on his laptop computer. Sticking out of the side of the machine was a card that would allow Kim, a resident of the City of Fairfax, to connect to a wireless network, if one were available.
Currently, the Fairfax City Council is considering installing a citywide system of wireless Internet routers that would allow broadband access from anywhere in the city.
"Every time period has its trends, and this is one of them," Kim said of wireless broadband. "I think it's worth stepping toward the future."
The idea for the service occurred to Councilmember R. Scott Silverthorne after he read a published account that Philadelphia had plans to install a wireless network. "The idea that I have, and that I have had for some time, is to make us as much of an e-city as can possibly be," Silverthorne said.
The city would install wireless routers on places like streetlights and traffic lights, where a power source is available. The routers, roughly the size of a red-light camera, would need to be shielded from the elements. The system is estimated to cost between $180,000 and $360,000 to install.
After the system is installed, anyone with a wireless network card in his computer would be able to have high-speed Internet access from anywhere within the city. The access would likely extend to areas just outside the City's boundaries, since the transmissions won't know that they have crossed a municipal boundary.
The system would, of course, have annual maintenance and operating costs. The Council will need to decide if it will charge residents a fee to use the service or pay for it through tax revenue.
A fee-based system would likely need to be competitive with the existing market to be successful. Kim, for example, would pay to use the service, if it is cheaper than his current Internet provider.
If no fee were charged, city residents could end up subsidizing Internet access for visitors from outside the city. Silverthorne thinks it unlikely, however, that area residents would drive to the city just to connect to the Internet. "What I hope is that people from Springfield would come in and use our city's businesses," he said.
AT A CITY COUNCIL worksession on Jan. 26, the Council heard from Steve Lowe of Tropos Networks, a Boulder, Colo.-based company that installs wireless networks. Lowe said the system, besides providing Internet access to citizens, can be used for a wireless network to allow government agencies to network.
Jurisdictions across the nation are installing the service, which is becoming like a public utility, Lowe said. "It's almost being treated like you have power, sewer, water and broadband," he said.
Lowe cited police as an example, since the network has allowed police in San Mateo, Calif., to do more of their paperwork on laptops in their cars, freeing them from desk time and putting them in the community.
Additionally, the wireless broadcasts can be used for other city services, such as checking utility meters from one central location, instead of sending meter-readers out from door to door.
Councilmembers were concerned that the program might compete with in-home wireless networks that city residents might already have installed.
Lowe said that hasn't been a problem in other areas. "We haven't had, at any site yet, any citizen complaints that 'you're blowing us out of the water,'" he said.
The city will need to develop specifications for just what sorts of services it wants to provide before moving forward. City staff members are currently working with outside companies to develop the specifications.
Once those are developed, a more accurate cost estimate can be developed that will better allow the City Council to weigh the proposal. However, the Council may find funding tough to come up with during this year's budget.
Currently, the Council is balancing several expensive items. The possible construction of an interpretive center at Blenheim Mansion has been put on hold because of funding issues.
Additionally, bids for the renovation of the Police Station, City Hall, Lanier Middle School and Fairfax High school have all come in higher than expected.
The City Council typically begins its budget deliberations in March.