Wireless Unplugged

Wireless Unplugged

City officials shut down free wireless service to avoid a fight with the FCC.

In the old days, investigators could wiretap telephone lines by placing an alligator clip on a copper wire. But things are different now. In the modern world of e-mail, videoconferencing, voice over IP, issuing surveillance warrants has become a more complicated and technical process. And now law enforcement officers are aided by a new federal rule that requires telecommunications providers to provide access to law enforcement officials. But the new federal requirement under the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act had an unintended consequence. It killed Wireless Alexandria.

"It’s not clear whether the city of Alexandria can be considered a telecommunications carrier," said Craig Fifer, e-government manager for the city. "But we didn’t want to risk getting into a fight with the Federal Communications Commission."

For more than two years, the city’s Wireless Alexandria pilot program has provided free wireless Internet access from Market Square to the city’s marina. Fifer said that the network’s four access points was constructed with surplus equipment as a temporary service until EarthLink could set up the citywide wireless network that city officials hope will go live in September. So upgrading the hardware to comply with the federal rules would require new switches, routers, servers and hubs. In the end it would have been too much of a burden for a temporary investment — even if it was for a good cause.

"First responders were having a problem because their communications equipment was being interrupted by cell phones and other wireless devices," said Austin Durrer, a spokesman for Rep. Jim Moran (D-8), who voted for the bill. "This was a bill that had bipartisan support to set aside a segment of the wireless spectrum to law enforcement officials."

Meanwhile, EarthLink has stalled the implementation of the service. When city officials cut the deal last year, they hoped it would go live this summer. Then EarthLink officials pushed back implementation of the franchise agreement until the fall. Now Jerry Grasso, director of corporate communications for the Atlanta-based company, said that a change in leadership is prompting a reassessment of priorities. When asked if Alexandria’s EarthLink’s franchise was in trouble, Grasso was evasive.

"At this time, EarthLink has hired a new CEO," said Grasso. "He’s going to take a look at all the pieces of the business."

City officials hope the new CEO won’t derail the citywide wireless network.

"We have a contract with EarthLInk, and we anticipate that they will honor it," said Fifer. "Hopefully the project will be back on track after the new CEO is done with his review."