City Council News

Bids sought for citywide wi-fi service

BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter
Chicagoans may someday be able to access the Internet no matter
where they are -- indoors or outdoors -- thanks to a long-awaited
competition launched Tuesday that could be a gold mine for taxpayers.
After more than a year of study that included City Council hearings,
the Daley administration finally issued a "request for proposals" that
invites technology companies to describe how they would build an $18.5
million wireless Internet access system that would extend into
Chicago's poorest communities.
Chicagoans already enjoy free wi-fi access at libraries and popular
public places such as Millennium Park, the Cultural Center and Daley
Center Plaza. Interested bidders must build on that network by creating
"hot spots" in Chicago Public Schools, on the museum campus and along
the lakefront.
Determined to bridge the digital divide, Mayor Daley also demanded
that Chicago's private-sector partner make a "financial commitment" to
"digital inclusion programs." They include affordable computers and
software programs and computer training aimed at the estimated 22
percent of all households that remain without a connection to the
Internet and its boundless possibilities.
'We'll be the first major city' top
Responses are due back in four months, and Daley has asked former
chief of staff Julia Stasch to chair an advisory panel to evaluate
competitors for the 10-year contract. Once a winner is chosen, the
system is expected to take roughly 18 months to install.
"We'll be the first major city to move ahead in [bridging] this
digital divide. No other city has done that in America," Daley said.
At a news conference at Al Raby School, the mayor argued that the
"21st century economy" demands universal access to computer technology.
"China, India and Japan know that the way to grow their economy is to
invest in technology, and we have to keep pace. . . . The United States
has some of the most advanced computer technology in the world. The
problem is, not everyone has access to it. In technology, as in too
many other areas of our society, there's a wide gap between the haves
and have-nots," the mayor said.
Chief Information Officer Hardik Bhatt said the city's goal is to
create an alternative broadband service that competes with cable, DSL
and cell phone-based wireless service and, therefore, drives down
costs. In exchange for paying Chicago a sizeable monthly fee and,
possibly, a share of revenues, a technology company or group would
install, maintain and upgrade roughly 7,500 small antennae on
streetlight poles every one and a half to two blocks, at a cost of
roughly $18.5 million. If additional antennae are needed, City Hall
could provide that, too.
New revenue for city top
The new system would give Chicago a sorely needed revenue stream --
and carry benefits far beyond the tens of millions it would raise.
Instead of racing over to Starbucks to get wireless access from your
laptop or paying a monthly fee to the phone company to get it at home,
the Internet would be available almost anywhere in the city. The
winning bidder would provide access to the network "on a wholesale
basis to multiple and competing retail service providers" who would
market services to residents and businesses.
"We want to make sure that it's either no-cost or low-cost
affordable. . . . It should be less than what you're paying right now,"
Bhatt said.
"You've seen how competitive prices are right now in the market,"
said Ald. Marge Laurino (39th), who co-chaired City Council hearings on
the wi-fi issue. "You can pick something up for $14.95 a month. We're
looking for something, maybe in that range. But there could be areas
free of charge, including industrial corridors."
City documents state Chicago is "not mandating a free solution, but
is interested in creative pricing models promoting availability." City
Hall will consider "responsible proposals, such as those that support
the operation of the network through advertising or other
revenue-generating models," the documents state.
Still unclear is whether residents of Chicago's many brick buildings
would need to install special antennae inside their homes to access the
Internet and, if so, at what cost.