Columns » Warwick Sabin

Let’s be a hot spot

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On Aug. 8, I called Traci L. Morgan, the new director of Little Rock’s Information Technology Department, to ask her if she intended to provide low-cost Wi-Fi access throughout the entire city. She said she didn’t know yet. It was her first day on the job, and I had ambushed her. But I hope she can understand my enthusiasm. Wi-Fi stands for “wireless fidelity” (it is also a registered trademark), and it allows someone with a Wi-Fi-enabled computer to surf the internet, share files and send e-mail without a physical connection to a broadband network. Why would a city want to make itself a “hot spot,” the term for a location where one can pick up a Wi-Fi signal? There are plenty of good reasons, beginning with the fact that access to the internet is increasingly becoming a fundamental part of how we learn, communicate, do business, and live our lives. It is no longer merely a source of entertainment that we can leave in the unregulated hands of private enterprise. It is closer to a utility, like telephone service, that everyone needs, regardless of income. Cities around the nation, like Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., are realizing this, and they are implementing plans to offer citywide Wi-Fi coverage to consumers at about half the current rates. Private companies that provide such services for profit are aggressively trying to beat back such efforts, going so far as to get a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate that would limit the ability of local governments to establish public Wi-Fi systems. That is why municipalities like Little Rock should take action sooner rather than later. Internet access is relatively expensive — if it is even available — for people who live in a poor state like Arkansas. Wi-Fi especially has been slow to come to us, because private companies have less incentive to invest in the equipment and manpower it would take to set up the infrastructure in our urban and rural areas. It’s not that it costs a lot to set up a Wi-Fi network. Our local governments could get it done with a minimal outlay. But a private outfit doesn’t stand to gain many paying customers where the median income is among the lowest in the nation. With cheap Wi-Fi provided by a city like Little Rock, the cost of owning a computer is reduced, which helps both residents and businesses. Plus it sends a signal that the city is on the cutting edge of technology. In fact, Arkansas could turn its lack of technology infrastructure to its advantage by adopting Wi-Fi initiatives across the state, just as Europe and Asia have done with cellular telephone networks. For years, those continents suffered from bad communication systems, because countries there could not afford the infrastructure necessary to provide telephone service to all of their citizens. However, the new cellular grid was cheaper, because governments could build transmission towers instead of laying wire to every home and business. As a result, these nations quickly transitioned to cell phones, far outpacing the U.S., where our good landline infrastructure reduced the need and demand for the more advanced technology. If you visit Europe and Asia today, you will find that their cellular networks and equipment are much better than ours. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently observed: “I began thinking about this after watching the Japanese use cellphones and laptops to get on the Internet from speeding bullet trains and subways deep underground. But the last straw was when I couldn’t get cellphone service while visiting IBM headquarters in Armonk, N.Y.” We know that Wi-Fi, like the cell phone, is eventually going to become a fundamental part of our infrastructure. Like the Europeans and Asians before us, Arkansans don’t have cheap and efficient broadband systems in the first place. So why don’t we just make the leap to municipal Wi-Fi and get ahead of the curve? One Arkansas city is at least making strides in this area. In April, Searcy become the first city in the nation to offer free Wi-Fi access in its parks. The money for the project is coming from donations, mostly from local banks. When the city council there approved the program, city clerk Tammy Gowen told the Searcy Daily Citizen, “We’re hoping it will target Searcy as trying to be progressive so that other industries will look at us and want to move here.” That’s the right idea. Now it is time for Little Rock and other places in Arkansas to provide the resources our citizens need to be educated, innovative and competitive in this new century.

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