A connected community

By Erin Scottberg

This is part two of a three-day series on citywide Internet access developing in Urbana.

When CUWiN project coordinator Sascha Meinrath talks about a wireless community network, he always comes back to the same point.

“When a local community, let’s say Urbana, is connected, people can communicate directly to each other,” Meinrath said. “Where you allow for direct communications, you allow for anyone to produce, direct and disseminate information in whatever medium they choose to anywhere else and anyone else on Earth. We’re talking about a fundamental shift in how people communicate.”

In 2005, communities in the United States spent more than $75 million building and maintaining municipal wireless networks. In 2006, that number is expected to rise 132 percent to more than $175 million and by 2007, the municipalities across the nation will invest more than $405 million into the wireless market, according to Esme Vos of muniwireless.com.

Urbana has committed $18,000 to install 20 to 25 nodes in the downtown area to hook into the wireless CUWiN network already at work in other parts of town. Although the CUWiN network is not owned by the city, it is considered municipal because network nodes will be located on city property.

As more nodes pop up around the city, the area serviced by the CUWiN network grows larger and the network grows stronger. If an Internet connection is supplied to the network from an outside Internet service provider, network users can use that gateway to surf the Web. The network can also connect users straight to each other, forming an intranet where people can share all kinds of information – video, audio, files – with anyone else on the network.

“The more people that get on it, the more people that utilize it, the more benefits occur to everyone,” Meinrath said.

An intranet offers local organizations, churches, schools and residents an affordable new way to connect with their community. Once a community intranet is established, it can be used to provide a variety of services to citizens: audio and video streaming for live broadcasts to anyone on the network, voice over Internet protocol phones that eliminate the need for traditional landlines, Website hosting, podcasting or e-mail accounts.

Of course, all this can be delivered over the Internet as well, but speeds are faster via intranet.

“When you connect to the Internet,” Meinrath explained, “you have to go out and back into the network,” which is a longer route to travel.

Once the nodes are in place, there is no cost to users to send information via the intranet. Through donations of bandwidth to the network, the CUWiN network also provides free broadband Internet access to users anywhere within the network, an amenity that has local businesses lining up to get online.

“They used to go out and build the industrial park beforehand, get the streets in, the sewers in,” said Bill DeJarnette, information services manager for the City of Urbana. “Well, if I get these corridors (of wireless connectivity to high-use areas) built, people will go ‘You know what, all we’ve got to do to use this is . well, wait a minute, nothing!’ A couple of wireless laptops and they’re in!”

Entrepreneurs looking for a start-up location or businesses looking to relocate will be attracted to an area that already has wireless Internet access. When people are deliberating where to eat, a WiFi enabled diner will be more appealing to some than an unwired location. Even recreation can be made more enjoyable with wireless access.

As more users log on to the network, DeJarnette is concerned that there isn’t going to be enough bandwidth to support more areas. Although the network is adequately supplied now, he’s worried that eventually users are going to require more bandwidth than donators can supply.

“Part of the goal of making this work is getting reasonable contributions of sufficient bandwidth to keep it viable,” DeJarnette said.

He stressed that this network is intended to be a public service for light Web surfing.

Meinrath said that bandwidth for the network has never been a problem and he doesn’t see it becoming one.

DeJarnette also suggested the possibility of heavy users, like the Urbana Free Library, providing bandwidth. It is unreal, he said, to expect the Independent Media Center and OJC Technologies, two of the bigger bandwidth providers, to power the whole network. Government funding and corporate sponsorships are also possibilities.

“These are things that will shake out as things move down the line,” said DeJarnette.

And while the details are figured out, the city is being careful not to be too hasty.

But for some, the city is moving too slow.

“There is very organized, diligent work being doing by citizens in Urbana to keep the issue (of a wireless network) on the forefront, to make it appear as though the city is really on the forefront,” said Lori Patterson, president of OJC Technologies. “There is some positive energy in the city but I do not think that the city has stepped up to the plate yet. At all.”

Patterson and Urbana City Council member Danielle Chynoweth want to see the city working to expand the CUWiN network beyond downtown. Chynoweth’s long-term goal is to build a municipal network throughout the city to provide basic broadband Internet service to all residents. She believes that broadband Internet is no longer an option but a necessary tool of literacy and fears that if people are denied access to these basic tools, they will fall behind.

Patterson looks at wireless Internet access as a utility similar to garbage pick up or recycling that should be municipally funded.

“It’s a strong statement for a city to make, to commit to providing access to technical resources for all of its citizens and businesses,” said Patterson, who also serves as the vice president of the Urbana Business Association. “If the city really does put in the resources necessary and the effort necessary to accomplish this downtown, we then have something to build off of. We can identify if it’s a similar benefit to bring elsewhere.”

Next: The city responds