Council Rejects WiFi Committee Proposal

On June 26, the last meeting of the Chapel Hill Town Council before their summer break, Council member Laurin Easthom brought a resolution called Establishment of Special Committee to Consider Development of Wireless Communication Network. This was a revisit of an earlier petition presented to council on June 12.

Easthom explained why she thought the new committee was a good idea. But she sounded the whole time like it wasn't going t happen. Then she said someone had told her before the meeting that the council wouldn't support it. That the council had already decided against it before their meeting but hadn't even talked to her about it.

What followed was the first substantial public discussion by the Town Council concerning municipal wireless networks in Chapel Hill.

First Bill Strom responded to Easthom by bringing up the need for a technology master plan, the potential large expense of a wireless network, and the fact that the town has a dearth of good tech advising since the council dismissed the tech committee. Also adding that the Council got rid of the tech committee because it wasn't providing them adequate advice. He also seemed skeptical of a pilot project in downtown when some business owners may not even want it.

Ed Harrison felt it was important that the council do something tonight. He expressed what seemed like support for the creation of a wireless network.

Mayor Foy said his view is that they don't know what their priorities are concerning wireless. He seems to feel that we should be careful and not make mistakes just throwing something up.

Easthom reminded the council that wireless is much more that using a laptop in downtown. Another good example of its use would be emergency services and education.

Mark Kleinschmidt begged to differ about the one laptop in downtown image. Just look at Carrboro and how much their WiFi is used. He believed we need to do a tech master plan.

Foy believed we should take more time and not just rush into something. Foy's view is they don't know what their priorities area concerning wireless. He doesn't seem to want to build something just because its cool for downtown.

Easthom reminded the council that wireless is much more than a using a laptop downtown. Other uses include emergency services like fire and police.

Kleinschmidt pointed out that no one has said we should just do it right now.

Foy explained that he was only responding to a comment Strom said.

It was moved and seconded to ask the manager to prepare for a tech master plan committee/discussion.

Easthom said a tech master plan idea felt like a delay tactic and cited the 10 year old street scape master plan.

Foy claimed that the first time he had read the wireless committee establishment proposal was at three o'clock that day. Easthom pointed out that this information has been in a previous meeting's packet weeks ago.

Here is a score card for how the council APPEARS to stands on municipal networking. Specifically on whether a committee should be created to study the idea.

Sally Greene - No
Bill Thorpe - ?
Bill Strom - No
Ed Harrison - Yes
Mark Kleinschmidt - Yes
Larin Easthom - Yes
Kevin Foy - No
Jim Ward - No
Cam Hill - No

Note: I welcome members of the Town Council to clarify or correct the above writing in the comments bellow.




I think it's important to note the final direction Council gave to the Manager: Return in the fall with a plan that will allow us to begin development of a Technology Master Plan. Integral to the development of a plan should be the means to address the feasibility issues of instituting a Wifi program. Laurin brought up some very important issues last night that serve as preliminary question that must be answered before a town-wide plan can be implemented. Specifically, she spoke of cost, the role of pilot programs for certain areas of town like downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, the role our topography will play in getting the program to function, consideration of private service providers and what their role would be, consideration of added efficiencies to the provision of municipal services, use of the future fiber-optics network that will be used to upgrade the Town's signal system, etc.

What I expect the result to be is an beginning of a process that will not only move Wifi forward, but will also address many of the other technology uses that the town is currently deficient in providing, e.g. signing up for P&R programs online, submitting requests for town services, etc. As Ed said last night, the potential for Wifi will likely be high on the list of priorities.

The Yes's you identify in the roll-call of Council members, are, as I read it correct. The No's you identify should probably be replaced with question marks. While there was some skepticism expressed during the discussion by some members, I don't think a Master Plan process is an attempt to sabotage. Instead I believe it is an attempt to contextualize to the program into the creation of a larger technology initiative.

I am very confident that one of the first items will be the creation of a new advisory board that will help guide the Council and the Town through the development of the plan. Close observers of the dissolution of the former Tech Committee would, I believe agree, that reformation of an advisory board with a clearer mission will serve the Town much better than the Comm's previous incarnation. A new committee helping guide the development of a plan and then be responsible for implementation of the plan holds a lot of promise.

I know this process is frustrating to those who are convinced of the value of a Wifi program, but I think the concerns that have been raised accurately reflect the feelings of many. We need to address these concerns.

At the end of June 2006, this is where we are. Let's accept the present situation and figure out how to move from here.

I am not a technology expert, but this country needs to get on the ball about internet technology. Thomas Bleha wrote an article in Foreign Affairs in May/June 2005 ("Down to the Wire") that compared the progress of the United States and Japan in internet technology. The results were staggering. He specifically dealt with the gap between the United States in phone technology and mobile-phone-based- Internet access. The message was clear.... if the United States wants to compete, it better start laying the necessary infrastructure to prepare for the future. It seems to me (remember that I am not an expert) that this would have been a good start.

One additional point of clarification to Brian's notes. Foy, Green, Kleinschmidt, Hill, and Strom all voted against this measure on the claim that the town needs a technology master plan in place before a wireless network can be seriously considered. With their votes last night, they forwarded to staff the request to develop a technology master plan by September.

Background: Between 2000 and 2005 the town's technology advisory board submitted to council two technology master plans. Detailed plans developed over months and months of solid work by citizen volunteers. Council did not formally adopt either plan. Both plans were forwarded to staff who then picked over the elements of these two fully integrated master plans to fund and implement those element that were 'easy'. To my knowledge, Council never asked staff for an update on their review of the second plan or any progress made toward implementing any of its elements.

And now council has asked staff to create its own technology master plan--after not having held staff accountable for the plans created by their citizens advisory board. And they want this done in 2 months with no additional funding. And being led by a manager who has not supported technology during his long tenure and who will be gone by the time the plan is presented back to Council.

While I was very happy to hear the mayor and Sally Greene speak of e-democracy last night, the Council's failure to hold staff accountable for the e-democracy proposals and the technology master plans submitted by their now-defunct citizens advisory board leaves me perplexed. What the heck did that whole discussion on a technology master plan have to do with creating a community-wide wireless study group?

Thanks for adding more information and context Mark. I tried to only report what I heard said. I'll be expressing my opinions and feelings about this subject on my blog soon.

I'm really looking forward to archived video of council meetings online. Then we'll be able to review exactly what was said and even link to it for proof. But context will always be important for citizens. :)

Thanks Brian. Good report. And thanks to Mark for clarifying some of the discussion.

It's near impossible to imagine anything worthwhile coming out of the new mandate to the staff to develop a plan. Based on my experience, the most likely deliverable will be a process map for how the town might go about thinking about thinking about maybe doing something one of these days.

That said, I appreciate Mark's comment about the need for a master plan. But if it's anything like any other master plans we know and love, it'll be five years in the making.

Or in this case, maybe it's already been five years in the making . . . ;)

Or maybe it's already sitting in town hall waiting for someone to read and fund it!


No. There won't be a Tech Master Plan by Sept. Please re-read comments above. I believe that the work plan for the proposed committee can be encompassed in the process of creating a Tech master plan. That's what the Council direction was last night.


I read your comments. And what I heard last night was Council instructing the manager to come back with 'something' in September. And I heard the manager say, 'yes we can do that.' What is that deliverable if it isn't the master plan?

During any interviews, was the new Town Manager
asked about the use of technology? What were his
his replies?

Good question Joe. Could someone enlighten us please? :)

I'd like to add another positive to the wireless initiative to this point. UNC. Several months ago, Chancellor Moeser and I discussed this topic, and he was very enthusiastic and supportive of the Town's efforts here. He wrote the Town a letter to that effect, and offered up assistance by having Dan Reed, UNC's Vice Chancellor of Information Technology (and internationally reknowned), available to meet with and assist the Town with technical expertise. Mark, Kevin and I along with some of our IT staff, met with Mr. Reed and his staff. We had a productive, informative, fantastic meeting in April. Members of Mr. Reed's staff attended our wireless public forum at Town Hall, and came away with a positive experience, reiterating their interest and assistance to the Town.
So imagine my frustration when this wireless exploration and initiative delays. I have seen town master plans that have taken years and one even a decade. I am just crossing my fingers and trying to remain positive now as Mark is, earlier in this thread, about the future of a municipal wireless network within a technology master plan.

Hi all, just wanted to say a few things. I think wireless would be a great boon to Chapel Hill for the business community and for the residents. Currently, when I have some work to do and I am sick of sitting at my desk or at my kitchen table, I head to someplace with wireless. These spots are always crowded with folks doing something similar, especially the coffee houses. Contrary to popular belief, most of the people seem to be buying stuff. (On a side note, I would like to note that Town Hall Grill has wireless, which makes for a nice change of pace).

But, wireless should be about more than just people hanging out sipping java or economic development. I grew up in a town of ~600 people, smack dab in the middle of nowhere. By the time I had graduated, my school had purchased a couple IBM IIIs (I believe that is what they were called) and a few Apple IIe computers, and only a few students were allowed to tinker with them. When I got to college imagine my surprise to find rooms of computers and people who knew how to use them. Behind the curve, it took graduate school and lots of free time for me to become the technical wiz you see today. {Who's laughing in the back! I'm serious!}

Recently, my school district which has two buildings to house K-12 (combined population 863; average family income $17,000), was awarded a number of grants that allowed it to construct microwave antennae towers to beam 900 MHz signals to each home within a ten-mile radius. This original circle is being extended to include the entire district. Now, my school, which had a few 1980s computers (as late as 1997) provides wireless access to all of its students and has hundreds of laptops and desktops. My niece has been using the network for her entire school career. Her access to knowledge is unlimited compared to those only a few miles away, thus must still rely on the library's copy of Encyclopedia Britannica I guess. My niece is also as comfortable with technology as any Chapel Hillian. Any Chapel Hillian with parents who can afford a good internet connection and computer to go with it. While a low end computer might be within the grasp of some, the monthly allocation of funds for high-speed internet might not be. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that many people struggle to get by in Chapel Hill, even at a decent salary, because of the high land values. It isn't just the apparently omnipresent housekeepers that are always brought up in these discussions, but single-parent families and low-end white collar workers as well. A community wireless network, in addition to creating economic opportunity and providing a framework for emergency services, could also serve to lend a hand to those students who are falling behind the technology curve.

Thanks for your patience.

I'm not sure what the total impact of wireless on reduced transportation (less traffic, less pollution) is, but as a builder I know it saves me trips back to my computer when I can access the Net in town.

Excellent description of the benefits of providing equal access to the Internet. Thanks Robert!

Disappointing. Chapel Hill can't compete with a small (78 folks) community at 9' 30" N latitude.

Craig Settles's blog Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless has a copy of his excellent article Surviving the Muni WiFi Roller Coaster. He has five suggestions.

Lesson 1 - Don't allow others to declare your network a flop.
Lesson 2 - Better manage expectations
Lesson 3 - People, reign in your politicians.
Lesson 4 – Find a PR strategist.
Lesson 5 – Maintain transparency with those whom the network is supposed to serve.

Obviously these are suggesitons for communities who've have built a network. But knowing how to plan for the future is a great place to start.

I nominate Brian and Will to be our volunteer PR strategists until further notice.

FYI- I'm not lobbying to become a PR strategist. But thanks for the vote of confidence all the same. :)

How real is broadband competition? A new study out from Kagan Research suggests that there's not much competition where it matters: price. Though many US markets have access to both DSL and cable modems, no pricing battles have erupted between the two services, and none are expected in the near future.

ArsTechnica: Broadband competition? Not so much

Hooray for Shaw University

RALEIGH - Bernice Hardy doesn't have a computer and isn't terribly familiar with the way wireless Internet technology works.

But by the end of the year, Hardy will likely join one of the fewer than 20 free community wireless Internet networks in the state.

"I know how to turn [a computer] on," Hardy said. "I can peck out a letter. And [I've] been online up at my church. But who would have thought I could do that in here," she said, motioning to her living room, "or in the kitchen."

Over the next year, Shaw University plans to begin expanding wireless Internet access to portions of the community closest to some buildings at its Southeast Raleigh campus, said Martel Perry, Shaw's executive vice president.

And the private, historically black college is thought to be among the first to provide such a service to the community.


I mentioned those neighborhoods a year ago in Fiona Morgan's excellent IndyWeek Wifi overview:

To the southeast, between Shaw University and the Progress Energy building, Raymond points out a cellphone tower that could be blasting a signal to those parts of the city where $50 a month can mean the difference between groceries or no groceries. "Imagine, with one antenna on that thing, how many South Raleigh neighborhoods they could cover."


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