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Dubuque Seeks Communitywide Internet Access

Rob Kundert

Dubuque Telegraph Herald

April 30, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.]

You find it in homes, in businesses and even restaurants. Why not have it all over town - community-wide wireless Internet access.

The desire to beam onto the information super highway, anytime-anywhere in the city, without the hardwired umbilical of a phone line or coax cable made the Envision 2010 wish list of the top 10 projects to be completed in the next five years.

The potentially pricey concept was a recurring theme culled from more than 2,300 ideas turned in by the community late last summer that made the final cut announced in January.

"There aren't many cities our size that are wireless. We would be on the cutting edge and that's what Dubuque likes to be these days," said Katrina Wilberding, a member of the Envision Selection Committee tasked with finalizing the list.

The technology could also pay dividends for the local job pool.

"We are trying to entice young people, college students, to focus on Dubuque after graduation and wireless is something that young people require," she said.

How wireless works
A wireless network connects two computers via a series of broadcast devices called access nodes. Each node is hardwired to a network, which is linked to the Internet. The nodes transmit its information to computers that are equipped to receive the signals. Antennas on each node allow the system to be "shaped" to cover a particular area, according to Randy Rodgers, electronic media director for the Telegraph Herald. "They use omni-directional antennas when they want to get high up and get around a whole area," he said, "but use directional panel antennas when they want to screen out an area." In this fashion, the wireless system can be engineered to be limited to inside a building or in outside areas. However, often times the signals "bleed" into their surroundings. - Rob Kundert
Questions of how much will be paid by whom to build what where still linger.

A question of degree

How far do you take the concept of free wireless access?

Should it go inside homes, businesses and all over town, or just outdoor areas?

Should it be capable of handling large amounts of data or limited to e-mail, chat rooms, Web browsing and simple applications?

Like a city water system, as the number of uses and users increase, so does the need for a bigger "pipe" - increased bandwidth - to carry all that information.

That's the biggest challenge to a wireless system, according to Randy Rodgers, electronic media director for the Telegraph Herald.

"When you reach the limit of its bandwidth, you can't get anymore data to go through that pipe. Then everything stops and it log jams," he said.

That's when it takes longer to load Web pages or the system crashes.

Bandwidth is a commodity and somebody has to pay for it, typically from a large telecommunication company like Qwest and AT&T, he said.

The network itself has to be built to handle a certain volume, depending on what it would be used for.

A feasibility study commissioned by the city last year in the advent of the November vote to form a municipal telecommunication utility showed a high-speed community-wide wireless system would cost $8 million. Most of that cost would be to install fiber optic cable and the hardware.

Some communities have opted for a much less expensive system - perhaps costing $20,000 to $30,000 - designed for a smaller area to handle much less data.

There are other questions.

What about security concerns? Will the needs today be the same as those five years from now?

Like most things in the wicked-fast world of technology, the latest innovation is outdated before you can pull away the bubble wrap.

Those who take a plunge by investing in pricey infrastructure can find themselves at the bottom of an empty pool of obsolescence.

Ultimately, many believe that cell phone and cable companies - those with existing wires, towers and other infrastructure - will be best positioned to blanket a community with wireless connectivity.

"I have not seen either of the companies that are capable of providing community-wide wireless step up and make a commitment," said Jim Normandin, publisher of the Telegraph Herald, who is taking part in the Envision process to look into a local wireless system.

"Will we have it? Yes, at some time, the residents here will demand it or the city will demand it," he said.

In the meantime, communities like Dubuque are looking at their own variation on the theme of wireless Internet access.

Pieces of a puzzle

Like a jigsaw puzzle scattered across a table, pieces of wireless Internet connectivity can be found around the community.

Residents have set up networks in their homes by connecting an relatively inexpensive router which broadcasts to in-home computers.

Wireless cafe's and coffee shops have sprung up to serve customers in the same fashion.

About five years ago, Loras College in Dubuque created a wireless system for its students.

"It is campus-wide, but it is primarily inside buildings," said Jeanne Skul, vice president for Information Technology at Loras.

"We focus on our classrooms and common areas," she said of such places as lounges, the cafeteria and library areas. "It is not in the residence halls, unless there is a common area."

Each student pays a technology fee and is issued a laptop with their identification imbedded on its system.

"The students have an account on the network. When they access the wireless system, it passes their credentials through," Skul said.

Others trying to access the network need a password.

The system, which has already gone through one upgrade, is a big hit, she said.

"You will see students everywhere on campus with their laptops and they love the wireless access," she said.

A bigger piece

Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Coralville teamed up this year to offer a wireless system for outdoor access in their downtown areas.

Jamie Licko, executive director of the Cedar Rapids Downtown District, said they formed a non-profit group, Corridor Free Wireless Inc.

"People can't be downloading enormous files. We pretty much have marketed it as a recreational network. Check and send e-mail, do some work, you can send Word documents back and forth," she said.

Anyone traveling to those downtown areas can access the Internet simply by signing on and creating a user name and password.

The system is maintained by Avalon Networks of Iowa City, which monitors how it is used.

"So if you're an offender in some way, clogging up the network, we can restrict your access to the network," Licko said.

The system was set up with $80,000 in contributions from Gazette Communications, each community, tourism and economic development groups.

"It was so well-received. Every time we asked, we usually got something," Licko said of the fund-raising. "People loved the buzz. They loved the image it brought to the community in terms of being a little bit savvy, a little bit cutting edge."

Operational costs are covered by banner ads on the log-in page. Communities like North Liberty and Marion have shown an interest in joining the organization.

"I think we will look at continuing to expand it as long as we can continue to pay the bills and fund raise to cover costs," she said.

The project does good things for the image of the area.

"This is just a great selling piece. It's not a huge project, but it certainly adds that layer of interest to our community," Licko said.

A step at a time

The Telegraph Herald looked at the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City-Coralville project, according to Normandin, who pitched the idea to the city.

"Very similar," Normandin said of the non-profit organization and its partnership with Gazette Communications.

"Our role would be for a wireless network that would cover common areas of the downtown, outside. So folks could come down, have lunch, have their laptop, go to Washington Square, or the Town Clock and be able to access the Internet," he said.

Scott Westerman, region vice president for Dubuque's cable provider, Mediacom said he sees merit in the limited concept.

"That is the way to start out. Identify some pilot areas in the community where you think the users are going to be and experiment in those areas," he said.

Blanketing the community with wireless signal is a different story.

"The TH or Woodward Communications are not in a position to provide community-wide wireless," Normandin said. Cell phone companies and cable companies are in a better position to get into this area, he said.

"The cell phone players and the cable players will definitely be likely candidates," Westerman said.

Westerman also said Mediacom is interested.

"We applaud the work of the Envision group and we agree with the premise that a strong telecommunication infrastructure is good for the community," he said. "We are very eager to be part of any solution."

But not right now.

"One of the things that make a lot of companies nervous about getting into the wireless space is that there is not a lot of good data on what works and what doesn't," said Westerman.

That includes a business plan to pay for the investment and the constant question of technological obsolescence.

"The reality is, we are going to be living in the next few years in a ultra-competitive telecommunication's environment," he said. "There are going to be a lot of providers who will be offering a variety of services, both wire line and wireless. That's changing a lot of the rules and assumptions on how things work."