Sign the Free Public WiFi Petition

In an effort to bring a free public WiFi network to Chapel Hill and to let our elected representatives know how we feel I've created an online petition.

To: Chapel Hill Town Council

The time has come for the Town of Chapel Hill to build a free, community-owned, public municipal network. The network should have wireless access and provide an open, unfiltered, and unmonitored connection to the Internet available to ALL people. It must be maintained by a local nonprofit for the people of Chapel Hill. Not by a private business or corporation.

We request that the Chapel Hill Town Council act swiftly to bring this service to the people.


The Undersigned

It will be presented to the Town Council as soon as posible. If you are a citizen of Chapel Hill please go to and sign it. Thank you!



How do the signers of this petition expect to pay for this free service? Advertising? Corporate largesse? UNC donation? Tom Riddle's wand?

Well Terri, how does Carrboro pay for it?

Out of the town's operating budget. But that's also why they have such limited coverage.

In Brookline MA, the town has put out an RFP for free service for public buildings, parks and main commercial areas with the expectation that coverage will be paid for through receipts to home service users. Philadelphia started as a free service but then switched over to a contract with Earthlink. According to what I've been reading, free services are simply not sustainable except for hotspot areas.

As one signer of the petition, I say we'd have to pay for it the same way we pay for any other "free" service. We make a commitment, explore the options, then come up with a plan that manages the tradeoffs.

The first issue is whether connectivity for all is a common good worthy of community support. I think it is, but the only way to know is to have the public debate and determine the real costs of various options. I see this petition as jump starting that debate.

For example, is connectivity for all more a service that is more important than, say, the egregious practice of "free" city-wide leaf collection? How does it rate in comparison to continued capital spending on libraries? What beneficial impacts might it have in terms of making telecommuting a more attractive option for people? What community-building value could be gained by having a Chapel Hill portal?

There are far more questions at this point than answers, but that doesn't mean the questions shouldn't be asked.

I think the petition should replace "free" with "tax supported", or otherwise mention the funding source.

I think we should explore a model that would fund the service for free for people who live in areas that are more densely populated since the town can serve more people for less money there.

For example, if your census block (or some other unit) has more than something like 3,000 residents per square mile, it's free. (Our average is 2,466, Carrboro's is 3,753). If it's less you can pay for the service. In fact, I think this would be an interesting way to look at a lot of town services...

What about municipal services? Do they fit into a free model or would that require an entirely separate network? San Mateo CA estimates that cops spend about 60% of their time in the station house completing paperwork and other admin duties that could be done from the field; with wifi they can access DMV photos during a search; from an accdient scene they can broadcast out messages to avoid the area, etc.

What about OWASA and other utilities that read meters? Free service typically means tax dollars. How about applications for visitors who may not have the patience to navigate the town website, find the chamber of commerce, the visitors center etc?

Will free service be sufficient to do anything other than read email and view static websites?

Lots of questions as Jim says. I agree with everything in this petition except the word "free." Nothing is free--free leaf pickup is certainly not, nor is transit. My preference would be to see the costs clearly identified up front so that city officials and residents can go into this with their eyes wide open.

The word free in the petition means that WiFi service should be free to the people who use it. When someone says we have “free buses” in Chapel Hill do people think the buses, tires and all are free? Nope.

Can we all just stop discussing the MILLIONS of details around WiFI for a while? What we need right now is grassroots community SUPPORT for this.

I believe the majority of citizens want this to happen and don't really care how. If you gauge the popularity of “free” services on the Internet you can see people like free stuff. Is the stuff you get for "free" on the internet really free? No. It's subsidized by other earnings. Free public WiFi in Chapel Hill can be funded in the same manner. Just ask Google.

As discussed previously, "free", at least for me, actually applies to one tier of service.

Where's the money to bootstrap the system coming from?

How about starting with savings from dropping our $253K Microsoft Office maintenance contract, consolidating our six cellphone vendors, reducing our computer turnover, moving to VOIP and carrying our own network traffic instead of TWX. Additional efficiencies will come from first-responder services. We should also aggressively apply for state and national grants that are targetted for improving municipal infrastructure.

I kind of short-handed this in the recent campaign by saying the Town should be the first customer of this service. That's customer as in "pony up the bucks." Good news, it'll be cheaper than the current operations.

Where will monies above and beyond the "fee" that the Town pays for using the system come from?

Commercial level service, initially to commercial entities but then, like Burlington Telecom, to residences. For commercial users, we can offer service at cost plus a modest markup instead of monopolist rates. Plot the NC-DOT fibre upgrades on a map and you can see that every major and minor commercial area is within 1000' of the endpoints. Residences? I imagine folk (like myself) will pay for 2nd-tier service via WiMAX or FIOS (fibre to the doorstep) that are way beyond the "free" tier (and way beyond what's currently offered by the monopolists).

The profits from the governmental operational efficiencies and the pay-for-play operations will fund the "free" aspect of the service - Wifi or WiMAX (which I think we should go to directly). The service can be a speed step above current DSL/cable offerings, symetric and pegged to improve as the infrastructure is built-out.

The latter point, evergreen improvements in the system, is a great advantage of a citizen-owned network. The "profit motive" isn't paramount. Monies collected are plowed back into delivering service, building out the system, possibly providing content and supporting training of users. Profits and fees collected by the current monopolists have not found their way back to improving the system or bridging the digital divide. By its very nature, a NPO chartered to manage this process will seek constant improvements for ALL our community (the shareholders).

As Brian has pointed out, we're beyond the "why" of this (or should be after 18 months) and on to the "how". We're suggesting that a NPO, with a membership drawn from our local stakeholders - business, UNC, the Town, other local NPOs, citizens - should manage the system (kind of vaguely like OWASA). The actual nuts-n-bolts could be farmed out to a commercial entity, maybe sub-contracted out to UNC or to an internal organization created by the NPO itself.

Terri, do you think there was as much discussion before the first "free" paved road in Chapel Hill was constructed? Or the first "free" sidewalk? Or all those wonderful "free" streetlights?

I forgot to mention that the UNC student body might also be willing to chip in for better off-campus connectivity that costs them fractions of what they currently pay for commercial service (kind of a "fare free" bus analogue).


You asked "do you think there was as much discussion before the first “free” paved road in Chapel Hill was constructed? Or the first “free” sidewalk? Or all those wonderful “free” streetlights?"

Surely you don't think we can compare where we are now with the turn of the century do you? The concept of infrastructure has grown exponentially since the first roads were paved. The current "free" sidewalks and streetlights are paid for by bond money (Streetscape) and our state taxes. Do you really want to use "free" to mean indirect costs and taxes? Why can't we put all the different payment options out on the table for discussion instead of framing the discussion around "free"? Philadelphia started out wanting to provide wifi as a free service, but then switched over to using their collective market power to negotiate a low cost fee structure.

I worry that if the expectation is that the town is going to pay for this, then the town will also expect to manage it. I would much prefer to see a new start up business or non profit created to negotiate the contracts with providers and oversee equipment installation and billing, create a computer distribution and training program for citizens, design a menu of mobile computing tools for visitors and residents alike, and monitor the horizon for new developments as they become available, etc. In essence, I would like to see this opportunity used to create a full-scale public technology program that serves the entire township and that can be scaled up to serve the entire county/region.

Terri has some interesting items on this topic that are worth reading, particularly the articles, "Two Sides to the Municipal Wi-Fi Story" and "Wireless Access: The Next Great Municipal Crisis."

Most problems can be overcome but it still is a good idea to have a plan up front.

The article in by a member of the Pacific Research Institute is a free market think tank ... I wonder who funds them?
that hosts events for the heritage foundation and the federalist society and has a quote praising its president from Rick Santorum....

"Free" can mean a couple things here....

There's "free" as in free access to the new Town Commons, free speech, freedom to speak freely, free unfettered/unfiltered access to information, free to anonymous dissent, etc.

Then there's "free" as in no direct costs for the citizen for basic access. To charge folk for this service leads inevitably to the loss of the first "freedom".

Fred has helped us find some FUD from the Pacific Research Institute, just another Astroturf group. While this group makes the distinction that

PRI salaried employees do not serve in a consulting capacity to the Institute's contributors, but they may receive speaking fees.

their folk have been out in force spreading the nay.

I bet they usually omit any talk of SBC's or Verizon's or fellow sock puppet The Heartland Institute's funding of PRI.

Fred, what does SBC think of muni-networking? Well their former employee and current meat-puppet Rep. Pete Sessions (Rep) Texas introduced HR 2726, a federal law which effectively bans municipal networking.

Will, did you also read the pro articles?

I must be a little dense. The eweek article is written by someone who thinks it would be great for Google to compete with the big telecomms and that's OK because she is a liberal. The conservative guy doesn't like the idea of government controlling access to communications and that's bad. Why does every discussion have to come down to someone's ideological affiliation?

I don't see any difference in inviting Google to operate our local network vs leaving it in the hands of the major telecomms. The telecomms overcharge and provide inferior product; Google puts advertising all over everything, confusing the non-technically inclined. Great tradeoff. Personally, I don't want some big company coming in to control our access, and I don't want that access to come at the cost of more rampant commercialization. For a wide variety of reasons, I don't want government controlling my access to the Internet and/or to web content.

Business affiliation Terri, not ideological. Good reason for a NPO that has an arms length relationship with both the technical facilitator (assuming they sub the operation out) and the government.

More articles (for those who like to consider the multiple dimensions of a complex policy issue).,1738,1755892,00.asp

Two points/questions:

First, my understanding is that the technology that permits a range of service from any given point that is far reaching enough to realisticly be used to create a "blanket" of service is NOT the technology used for "hot spots" and that the card needed to receive this signal is: a.) different than what most computers have, and b.) expensive (negating the whole point of "free" access. Any comments/advice from you tech folks on that one?

Second, we (the Town) already have a lot of expensive equipment meant to work on a "wireless" system...that is to say, the data transfer technology our police force uses to up load and down load info while on patrol using "cell phone" reception. To my knowledge, this network still has large black-out areas that are not being addressed. How about first things first...connectivity for our first responders.

Third (I know...i said two): do we really think a public utility ("public" as in bureaucratic, and "utility" as in large, cumbersum infrastructure) is going to keep up with the pace of the in and outs of this kind of technology? I am skeptical...

How about leveraging some of the assets we already more tech access at the schools and/or the libraries? I get that the principal here is a good one, but to be a responsible plan, there needs to be some study of scope, cost:benefit, and opportunity cost...without analysis, its a pretty "low tech" public policy.

(And why does service to under priveledged users have to be wireless? Public schools seem to do well providing support services to targeted populations (common definition is those that qualify for lunch programs). Why couldn't these kids be provided with dial-up or cable access, as appropriate? This all needs a lot more thought...otherwise it just apppears to be a "fad" issue, and I know the folks who support it are far more serious and dedicated than that.)

I'll respond out of order.

1) Wireless infrastructure is cheaper and more adaptable over time for large area access. Fibre, which we can put in quite cost effectively "tagging along" with the NC-DOT project, offers the greatest known capacity and flexibility - perfect for commercial access.

2) WiMAX/UltraWideBand (UWB) is distinctly different than Wifi in spectrum and the standards they utilize.

3) WiMAX has ranges from 8 to 35 miles, several units costing $10-40K could easily blanket large swaths of our town. One somewhat mountainous community in New Mexico is covering 3700 sq/miles - with complete end-to-end highspeed infrastructure for 100,000 inhabitants for $8M (way more than our proposal).

4) Cards supporting WiMAX will be on the market 2006. Prices are expected to be comparable to today's Wifi cards.

5) Manufacturers of laptops, dual cellphones (WiBRO), PDAs have all endorsed the spec. and plan to support it 2006/2007.
South Korea expects 10M WiBro phone users by 2007. The equipment use will be pioneered elsewhere, probably for years, before we use it here in the U.S.

6) Dual spec. equipment supporting WiMAX for "backhaul" (carrying the high density traffic to and from landline endpoints) and Wifi (the equipment most of us have now) is already available in the $200-400 range. Using Wifi Mesh techniques one of these endpoints could provide Wifi for service several city blocks.

7) WiMAX or fibre could be the superhighway distributing access to high consumption endpoints (commercial, government, schools, Wifi/WiMAX redistribution points). This is more than a Wifi project.

8) All these transport mechanisms support TCP/IP and UDP type networking - the ubiquitous communication media of the Internet. These protocols represent a convergence of hardware and software technologies that are the widest supported ones today (and for the near future). Software can span a range of devices supporting these standard protocols.
VOIP (voice over IP), for instance, would be a great way to rid ourselves of cellphone lock-in, increase end-to-end communication capabilities using off-the-shelf HW and SW (like Skype).

9) This proposal is the best and fastest way to provide our first-responders highspeed access to data via off-the-shelf hardware (HW) and software (SW). An extremely cost effective, non-proprietary approach that will grow easily to meet the needs of our first-responders. The software police use, for instance, at the station house, could be used in their vehicles using a combination of laptop and WiMAX. BTW, we're already instituting, in my opinion, a "new" obsolete system for our force - 900MHZ, proprietary lock-in.

10) "Free" access is just part of the equation. We have to carry our Town's network traffic - why not get two bangs (or more) for the same buck? And rather than "leasing" the infrastructure from the monopolist, why don't we plow the monies we spend back into a system we own?

11) We're proposing a NPO organizes the system. As far as govt. not being able to manage projects like this - look at our school systems tech infrastructure - I think you'll be impressed by the backbone.

12) We need a vision of where we want to be in 10 years and then work to that vision. This system can be deployed a piece at a time, covering different areas and managing different responsibilities at various points in the projects timeline.

13) I believe the telephone, the automobile, the television and the personal computer, to name a few items, were all considered "fads" in their time.

What Will said! Wow! That sums the tech aspecs up pretty damn well. :)

Glen G asked:
"(And why does service to under priveledged users have to be wireless? Public schools seem to do well providing support services to targeted populations (common definition is those that qualify for lunch programs). Why couldn't these kids be provided with dial-up or cable access, as appropriate?"

About 4 years ago the CHCCS school system initiated a program to provide low income students with (free) internet appliances and $10/month dial up service. The high school kids don't like the internet appliances, and in many low-income families they use cells phones instead of telephone lines. So the district is looking for something like wireless in those areas where there are large numbers of low-income families, like Northside and Pine Knolls, so they can continue their efforts to bridge the digital divide. They also have volunteers who are refurbishing used desktops as alternatives to the internet appliances.

The school district is just one of the organizations who have expressed an interest in partnering with the town on this initiative.

I support this iniative strongly, but only if it is truly a city-wide service. I would oppose taxing everyone to supply "free" service to only the most densely populated areas, as was suggested above.

"Universal service" was a long-time dictum of the old AT&T mandate. Basically, the phone company could not pass on the high costs of providing service in remote areas solely to the residents there. The costs were shared by all telephone users. We're talking about a similar sort of public utility, and similar principles should apply.

That said, 100% coverage need not beprovided from the start, but could be a five-year goal.

Also, we need to face the fact that not everyone has at-home access to a computer. The program should also look to provide convenient public access computer facilities so that all residents (and visitors) can avail themselves of the service.

"I support this iniative strongly, but only if it is truly a city-wide service. I would oppose taxing everyone to supply “free” service to only the most densely populated areas, as was suggested above."

Thank you, Carl.

"I think we should explore a model that would fund the service for free for people who live in areas that are more densely populated since the town can serve more people for less money there."

Ruby, if Carrboro doesn't want to serve less densely populated areas, then it should not have annexed them.

Terri, Carl Bailey, and CharlieB:

You are right on the money. It's everyone, 100%, no excuses. I don't mind doing it at intervals of coverage, but in the end, every man, woman, and child in this town should benefit, but all the children first. That's the only it's going to make sense.


Like always, dude, you are the man! Thanks for bringing it down to ground level. It's easier to imagine a wireless Internet town when we can see the buttons on the shirt of this project. Keep working the crowds, and they'll come around. Promise.

New Orleans is pulling it off, both in a public wifi network, and a secure wifi network for first-responders and so on:

My understanding that this effort was jump-started by the realization that limited-to-no internet access in the city had become a significant obstacle to recovery. The companies in town -- Cox, BellSouth -- seem remarkably relaxed about it, confident that they offer a superior service and will win back customers who demand DSL/Cable type speeds. And I saw the WiFi system work in both a bar on Decatur, and in a house a mile away on Esplanade in Treme.

Actually, BellSouth doesn't seem very relaxed about it:

Hours after New Orleans officials announced Tuesday that they would deploy a city-owned, wireless Internet network in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, regional phone giant BellSouth Corp. withdrew an offer to donate one of its damaged buildings that would have housed new police headquarters, city officials said yesterday.

Actually, in that article you cite, it's city hall that's the source for the quote, specifically a third-party account of a conversation between the BellSouth honcho and the New Orleans Homeland Security Chief. In that same article, BellSouth says:

"BellSouth spokesman Jeff Battcher disputed the city's version of events.

'Our willingness to work with the mayor and the city is still on the table," Battcher said. "We've been working for over two months on this building . . . we are a little surprised by these comments.'"

OK, perhaps "relaxed" is the wrong word, and thanks for clearing that up. Wheww. Since their own system of copper wiring corroded and failed emergency responders during the height of the crisis, I suppose they've settled on "angry conversations" as about as far as they can go without incurring the wrath of just about everyone. There has been no discussion of BellSouth withdrawing its offer of the building since that Washington Post article, and my sources say it's not even a question.

Forget The Washington Post. The Times-Picayune -- your best source for New Orleans news:

Anyway, my point was only to add to the list of cities that had made an-almost-citywide public WiFi network a reality. That's all, really. I don't really want to fight about it with you.

Does anyone know if there has been a cost-benefit analysis done for this expenditure?

Also, who is liable if the law is broken using town Wifi??

And wouldn't wifi make certain kinds of crime--child pornography for instance--more difficult to trace?


John, as in most things, the lawbreaker is liable for their actions. Whether they're brought to account or not is another matter.

Melanie, a possible downside of a free and open communications infrastructure is that reprehensible acts "might" be aided. All communication networks - even "sneaker net" are open to potential abuse.

I'm in good company in arguing that the known good of open communications far outweighs the potential for abuse.

The upside of a community-owned network that operates as a "common carrier" is so much greater than the downside. And, based on your postings here, I believe I can safely assume you don't want to be chipped and tracked electronically, just as I believe I can safely assume you also don't want your communications to be filtered or followed by any entity.

Freedom or not?

All fine and good-yes the law breakers should be busted when they break the law, but Town Hall may be easier to find and therefore sue than someone who has disappeared with their laptop, after breaking the law, eh?

And again, what about cost-benefit? Anyone know if this study has been done. Certainly since we are talking about public funds a cost-benefit analysis has been done so that the tax paying public is ensured that their money is being well spent in this effort???

John, doing a RFP, etc. will firm up the cost-benefit equation. Luckily, we're not the first community to do this analysis so we have plenty of "templates" to follow.

Now, John, maybe you should ask firmly for cost-benefit analyses of roads, sidewalks, natatoriums, schools, streetlights, trash pickup, Downtown development groups, Town-owned SUVs, greenways, public art, storm sewers, etc. ?

I'm checking in from a public wifi network at in DC...

If lawbreaking using public wifi was a real problem, you'd think it would have come up for Carrboro by now. The issue seems to be just a delaying tactic to me.

One would hope that such an analysis of providing wifi will be done in the context of our town. What works elsewhere is really not cogent to this discussion in a lot of ways, although perhaps pieces could be used.

RE- other projects- 10-4 brother. It is all public money and should all be handled as such. There needs to be a regular review of how money is spent and how it benefits the people who are paying to do stuff. Yeah, I know that makes way too much sense. As my brother would say, be thankful I don't get all the government I pay for. Ugh.

Ruby, I am glad that you are glad that you are logging in remotely via wifi. Wifi is great, no axe to grind there.

My point was that if there is a liability to the town for providing such service, it should be defined and addressed. Just because others provide this service does not mean that they have a grip on the ramifications of its abuse. And of course, we taxpayers will be ultimately liable in the event there is a problem. All I am asking for is good stewardship of our money. To imply that I want to delay it if it has been thoroughly studied and showed to benefit the public financially, is not correct.

Tell DC I said hello.

John, where's the liability? Sure, the Town can be sued for potholes, broken sidewalks, employee malfeasance (that's a tough one) and many other reasons - what makes muni-networking any different? But, as a telecommunications carrier, the Town (or a NPO) would have many more legal protections as far as the "content" it carries than for other Town-related services (like a slip at the Community Pool).

But, if you've been following the thread for awhile, you'd probably realize that the proposal some us have made makes your Town liability issue somewhat moot - as we've suggested a NPO managed the system. So, for an OWASA issue, for instance, do you sue Chapel Hill? Don't think so....

BTW, the pornography and liability issues are straight out of the standard anti-community-networking corporations' playbook. Simple FUD.

As far as ROI, there's specific business metrics we can use to justify the initial buildout based on cost savings from carrying Town-related traffic and other civic entities traffic. We can also provide a new class of service enhancements not previously cost-effective.

If you're worried about the potential muni-networking justifications and costs, I'd suggest you cast your attention towards the existing stormwater utility's activities - that's an ongoing enterprise much more likely to fail your "cost-benefit" equation.

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe Will has endorsed the concept of a nonprofit organization to oversee the development and delivery of a municipal network. A nonprofit would be required to have its own liability, separate from the town. Hopefully, the nonprofit would be staffed with individuals who know how to manage security at the server level. Child pornography is the price we pay for freedom. The nonprofit should also be required to offer training courses on ethical use of technologies. While I support the idea of a nonprofit management group, I would prefer to see this network include both Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County in order to take advantage of economies of scale and capitalize on the upcoming signalling system upgrade.

Terri, I see Chapel Hill and UNC as "charter" members of the NPO, along with other stakeholders like other local NPOs, civic groups, etc. It would be great to pull in Carrboro and Orange County but if this organization starts out "too big" it seems the unwieldiness of it will sink the whole enterprise.

The liability issue is a bugaboo - it looms so large because of the continuing stream of FUD from the monopolists. We need to educate folks so they realize that the liability of the muni-network is roughly equivalent to that of the cable or telephone company ISPs whom act as "common carriers".


Many of the communities that are successfully establishing their own networks are many times larger, geographically and culturally, than Chapel Hill and Carrboro combined. Adding in the County as representatives for the rest of the township allows us the opportunity to bring in emergency services, transit, public works, OWASA, etc. It will also allow us to take better advantage of the fiber opportunity that will come with the traffic signals. I don't think we should expect to start out covering the full township, but I do believe we should design a network with that expectation.

Absolutely Terri.

WiFi is an excellent idea for downtown, however I don't imagine that I'll be able to afford a laptop for a while. What I do own is a mobile phone that, even while in town, intermittently receives a signal. Can we work on that before jumping to WiFi? I still need to be able to contact 911 by phone.

My collegue Phil Meyer sends this Washington Monthly article by John Podesta and Robert McChesney, "Let There Be Wifi" that is a great resource for this discussion.
Read and enjoy.


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