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Citywide Networking On its Way

City Council is set to consider EarthLink franchise next Saturday.

As laptop computers become increasingly ubiquitous, wireless networks have popped up all over Alexandria. Some of them, like the one at St. Elmo’s Coffeehouse, are free. Others, like that offered at Starbucks, have a monthly fee.

But if the City Council approves a franchise agreement with EarthLink, city residents could have access to a citywide wireless hotspot that would be available anywhere in the city. For a fee of about $20 a month, Alexandria EarthLink customers could access the Internet anywhere from the parking lot of William Ramsay Elementary School to the top of the Masonic Memorial. In exchange for offering the use of city-owned property to mount the transmitters, EarthLink is offering Internet access for the city’s high school students and free service in 24 locations. Public hearing on the matter is scheduled for Dec. 16.

“We know how to develop this kind of a network,” said William Tolpegin, vice president for development and planning at Atlanta-based EarthLink. “And this is not just a side project for us. We have a whole division dedicated to this.”

EarthLink has more than five million subscribers, and it has already created similar municipal services in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Anaheim, Calif. Alexandria’s potential franchise agreement includes 2,700 accounts for Alexandria students in grades 9 to 12 — an arrangement that will give all Alexandria high school students 24-hour access to school servers and the Internet. It also includes 2,700 low-income accounts at a fixed price of $9.95 a month and 500 accounts for government use.

“Alexandria may be the first jurisdiction in the nation to provide such extensive free computers and Internet access to its secondary students,” wrote City Manager Jim Hartmann in his recommendation to approve the franchise agreement. “Because many students live in low-income households, this combination of laptops and free wireless service will also help address a significant aspect of the digital divide.”

BARGAINING AWAY the public right-of-way is not an easy decision. Becca Vargo Daggett, a researcher with the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said that it’s a mistake for cities to relinquish so much control to a private company. She said that the city of Alexandria could create a publicly owned network that could be used by competing private interests.

“The public sector builds airports, but it doesn’t fly airplanes,” Daggett said. “By entering into these kinds of agreements, cities think that they are getting something for nothing. But they’re not.”

Daggett said that a publicly owned wireless network would create a level playing field for competing private companies, with the city maintaining control over critical municipal applications and hardware.

“This process bears a lot of resemblance to what happened with the cable franchises,” Daggett said. “Local authority over the franchises has been slowly eroded over time, and history teaches us that we will see the same sort of erosion.”

Several localities are in the process of creating privately owned citywide wireless networks, with Pennsylvania leading the way. Although Philadelphia planned to create the country’s first city-owned network, the Philadelphia City Council eventually abandoned that plan in favor of letting EarthLink do it for them. In San Francisco, Google and EarthLink have teamed up to create a plan to pay for a wireless network by targeting advertising at Internet users.

“If the city of Alexandria wants to have a corporate-owned wireless network, I would suggest that they look into ways to keep control of it,” said Josh Breitbart, communications director of the Philadelphia-based MediaTank, a nonprofit organization that advocates democratic reforms to media ownership. “One way to encourage accountability would be to create a citizen review board to oversee the corporate owner.”

ALEXANDRIA E-GOVERNMENT manager Craig Fifer said that the city has no plans to create such a board. He said that the dispute-resolution process spelled out in the franchise agreement would be able to handle any oversight needs. Furthermore, he said, the city wanted to avoid the kind of regulations it imposed when it granted a cable franchise agreement to Comcast.

“We regulate Comcast to the extent that they are required to answer the phone within a certain number of seconds when customers call them,” said Fifer. “But if we tell EarthLink that they must meet regulations that cost them money, then we can’t expect the same number of benefits from them that we have.”

Fifer said that he hopes the franchise agreement will be a win-win situation for the city and EarthLink.

“Theoretically, we could spend tax dollars to build this kind of network. But then we couldn’t let the public use it because of security and legal reasons,” said Fifer. “The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The only concern seems to be where we put the free service areas, and we’re happy to receive public input on where they people think the free areas should be.”