Tuesday, April 26, 2005

If You Unwire, They Will Come: Cheap Urban Renewal for Clackamas County by Free WiFi

Although this impinges on the technical, so I'd normally write about it over in my Tech Blog, it has the possibility of significant economic benefit for my friends and neighbors in Clackamas County, so it really belongs here. I'll keep the bits-bytes-RAM-ROM technobabble down to a minimum, so please stick with me.

Phone companies (with DSL) and cable systems have been the primary way to get better-than-dial-up connections to the Internet, and a significant portion of the public now view this as essential, with 56% use nationwide, and much higher use here in the metro area.

Good Internet connections create jobs where there were none before; just look at Google's expansion into the Dalles, because there was a good very-high-speed connection there, built by foresighted city leaders.

My mother-in-law in Prineville is a self-employed information worker, so I learned Prineville is becoming popular in part because of the availability of cable broadband, DSL and wireless Internet, for folks priced out of Bend and Redmond.

The cellular companies have been trying, without much luck, to become an alternative provider for Internet connections with their '3G' cellular data service, but that's spendy and has serious drawbacks; making a connection is slow ('latency'), so even if they're fast once connected, waiting for that connection is trouble; and, since the Internet is pretty much a system where you reconnect every few seconds, with multiple connections required for every new web page likely, that latency is a big drawback. So, counting on cellular as an alternative isn't practical, especially when it has limited capacity for growth without more spectrum.

And, the major telephone companies, after decades of promising fiber to the doorstep, still only deliver plain-old-DSL, and that's if you're lucky enough to have an uninterrupted stretch of quality wiring to your house from a central office which can be no more than three miles away. Their empty promises got them tax breaks, but hurt your ability to connect.

Instead, the practical alternative to expensive Urban Renewal is free wireless networking. Making it easy to reach the Internet from a home or home office is a wonderful 'force multiplier' for the local economy, and Portland's Personal Project is 'unwiring' inner-city North Portland.

With the low rents, easy transit access and funky old buildings of downtown Milwaukie and Oregon City, adding free wireless Interent would be a cheap and effective way to create a new young crowd in those aging, greying blighted areas, a crowd which is now finding similar neigborhoods along Alberta and in the Pearl too expesive with rising rents. 'Unwiring' is much cheaper than traditional Urban Renewal, especially if a Meyer Memorial Trust grant could be found (as was the case for the North Mississippi neighborhood project).

It's also much easier to measure your progress, as the web traffic itself will tell you how successful your project has become.

Fortunately, the recent attempt down in Salem to stifle community wireless died in committee, no thanks to the Republican House member from Ontario and our very own Democrat from Happy Valley, Michael Schaufler. However, watch for further assaults on community wireless, because creating a monopoly is easy to do if the politicians are bought cheaply.

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