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Citywide Hotspot?

Alexandria investigates the possibility of creating a citywide wireless network.

Imagine a future when your wireless laptop could get Internet access everywhere in the city limits. T.C. Williams High School students could turn in homework to classroom servers from their bedrooms. Internet telephones could get reception on the waterfront, and code inspectors could check the city’s database from the west end.

That future may be sooner rather than later, and City Hall is investigating the possibility of allowing a private firm to install and operate a wireless network in the city at no cost to the taxpayers. The company that ends up with the contract would charge for service, which would be available at all points within the city limits. Its hardwire would be installed on public property like light poles and traffic lights.

Negotiations could begin as soon as this summer, with City Hall holding out for a list of demands: the franchisee must provide free access in certain public areas like Market Square; the network must be available for city-government use; low-income residents must get free or reduced-price subscriptions; and high school students must be able to access the Internet with their school-issue laptops.

That’s a long list of demands, but City Hall is confident that a wealth of companies will be knocking on the door to get access to Alexandria’s public property. Similar networks already exist in Anaheim, Calif., which has a franchise with EarthLink and Tempe, Ariz., which signed a contract with MobilPro.

“This not only would provide the city new capability, but also potentially create substantial communications operating budget savings,” wrote City Manager Jim Hartmann in his recommendation that City Council pass an ordinance to solicit proposals. “The city would not regulate the rates charged to the general public, except that the city would seek to obtain a first-year retail residential account price guarantee.”

The idea is set for a public hearing on May 20. If City Council decides to proceed with letting a private company use public property, bids would be received and then announced at City Council’s June 27 meeting. The city manager would make a recommendation as early as September.

BARGAINING AWAY the public right-of-way is not an easy decision, and council members will be faced with a series of difficult choices during the negotiation process: How much of the network is it willing to lose control over?

Becca Vargo Daggett, a researcher with the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said that it’s a mistake for cities to relinquish control to a private company. She said that the city 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 planed to create the country’s first city-owned network, the Philadelphia City Council eventually abandoned that plan in favor of letting a private company 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.”

At City Hall, elected leaders and staff members are excited about the possibility of having a private company pay for hardware that would be used by city workers. They think the idea has tremendous potential, and Mayor Bill Euille released a statement Tuesday praising the idea of allowing a private company to use the public right-of-way.

“The key here is that Alexandria’s model would result in tremendous savings for taxpayers over the traditional means of connecting city workers and devices in the field, while at the same time helping those residents who can least afford to be part of the digital age,” Euille said in the statement. “We hope to stimulate the market to offer new and creative options to consumers, without government competition with the private sector.”

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, council members were presented with a draft of the ordinance they would have to pass to advertise to potential providers. Bids would be due no later than June 23. Construction of the network is expected to take six to nine months after the franchise is granted.

“Our goal is to not use any taxpayer money and to get maximum public benefit,” said Craig Fifer, e-government manager for the city. “The exact details of the agreement will be hammered out over the summer.”