What Lexington Needs: free WiFi by Kakie Urch

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Wi in the Sky
- by Kakie Urch

WHAT LEXINGTON NEEDS is an Ace feature dating back to 1989. By popular demand, Ace is bringing it back for every issue in 2009, for Ace’s 20th anniversary. Email submissions to editor@aceweekly.com.

While we’re talking about Wi in the sky, let’s state out front that I was one of the lucky ones.

It was pretty clear that the ice had taken my broadband cable, slouching all aglisten slowly toward the first floor, but somehow, thanks to the grace of a neighbor’s unsecured connection, I was able to remain online during the storm that Gov. Steve Beshear has termed the worst natural disaster in recorded Kentucky history.

But many people, some of them with children, sick or elderly family members, and some without power or heat, weren’t as lucky. Everything that came through a cable, wire or pipe was out of service. And the neighbor wasn’t hot. If a municipal wi-fi system had been in place, thousands of Lexingtonians would have been able to more quickly receive emergency information, continue to work in some cases, and definitely keep in touch with support networks that take some of the burden off the city.

The Internet was invented to keep the world’s computers talking during Armaggedon. When the Defense Department envisioned Cold War worst case outcomes, it figured it needed a way to keep the computers talking to each other until the people could poke their heads back out of the shelters. Sounds a little like last week, with lots more radiation.

It’s not just for natural disasters or say man-made disasters — I remember about once every three months that we’re just 20 miles from the igloos of mass destruction at the Bluegrass Army Depot in Richmond —or terrorist disasters, God forbid, in the homeland. Though all that would be a nice use of the technology that was invented for disaster.

Municipal wi-fi is good for business, good for education, good for creativity and good for the entrepreneurship that by nature is going to spring up even more rapidly as people find ways to fight back against the economic end-of-times. Municipal wi-fi has also shown in other markets to offer people an educational and economic hand up. I’ve seen with the children in Title I schools that if you put a bunch of poor kids around a computer, they become a bunch of interested, engaged kids who see with curious eyes and endless possibilities. With people at MIT working on a project to give the developing world $200 laptops and companies like Dell and HP looking at a softening market in the developed world, surely a wider spread of computer access is something Lexington should embrace.

What Lexington needs is a commitment to the digital infrastructure to continue and expand its history as a city of “clean industry.” We’ve long heard the tale about how the city fathers hunkered down at a country club table eons ago and decided to invite IBM in to keep the smokestacks out. That was a smart move. And this time, the city is actually following straight into the basket for the rebound.

What Lexington needs is wi-fi and according to Rama Dhuwaraha, the top technology person at the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, what Lexington will get, by summer, is wifi.

Free wi-fi.

The University of Kentucky has led the way in recent years, both with its on-campus wi-fi and its remarkable digital campus plans. Dhuwaraha (with strong support from Mayor Newberry and UK’s Doyle Friskney have forged a model of a public-private partnership. And it will make your laptop hot, allowing access to the UK guest signal throughout downtown. The city and the University, last summer, took up a “town-gown” MOA — Memorandum of Agreement — to use the abandoned SkyTel equipment (sold to the city for $10) to begin to offer wi-fi downtown, for free. That’s a great sign and one that we should make sure happens, quickly, with an eye to expansion, if possible, to the entire county. UK and the city are just putting the finishing touches on the adjustments required to the towers.

Microsoft has identified some of the “hottest” cities — where there is the most and most affordable (i.e. free) wi-fi available as Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, Portland, OR, and Atlanta. Those are some pretty decent qualities of life, with Austin being one of the cities the Urban County Government and other leaders visited in person to gather ideas. And all of them, like Lexington, have the creative and economic engine of a university (or universities) at their center and outskirts.

Education is infrastructure, as Lexington (and now a new President) definitely acknowledges…and the information that is education travels through the air on this wi-fi. Dhuwaraha says that the signal will be free to users and city and university plan to split ongoing costs 50/50. And free is the “only model that’s going to work because if you charge for it, people will just go somewhere it is free.” Should the city make the commitment to “facilitate commerce and make this a quality of life thing?” Dhuwaraha says yes.

Amongst the most technological, there is some debate about whether we should act now or wait and see if Lexington, like Baltimore, becomes one of the lucky test markets for Sprint’s 4G network that provides the fast fast indoor/outdoor multimedia signal that can carry fat fat packets at the speed of light, and will, industry publications and studies assure, supercede wi-fi. (For a cost, of course. You’d have to add to your Sprint bill, add a Clearwire charge to that and run it all through your smartphone that’s $150 minimum, $300 if its name starts with an “I”).

To that, I present the thousands and thousands of people, many older or living in poverty, who are clinging to their rabbit ears as the digital television switch is delayed. So let’s act now to put in place critical digital infrastructure that we can use in this economy, in this cycle, in this administration of possibilities.

Also Dhuwaraha says, with an eye to the future, UK and the city have already approached 4G vendors like Clearwire about coming to Lexington. What vendors want to see is a critical mass of people already using the service before they come in, he says. And here’s where UK and Lexington are working together best for the future: they are proposing to vendors to come in and use the FEI Equestrian Games as a testing and proving ground for their new services. Now, that’s the way to think like Austin!

So, whether or not anything is ever built at the corner of Rosenberg and Vine, and whether every Kentuckian is one day toting an iPhone as we once did a longrifle, we should be able to sit in the middle of that hole this summer, get a signal, get some work done and check the Snow Emergency Route maps. ■

Kakie Urch is an Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunication at University of Kentucky. You can also read What Lexington Needs on Page 5 of this week’s issue, at newsstands now.



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