Land of the Free Wi-Fi

Posted December 17, 2009 in News

Despite the recession, apparently Riverside has a reason to celebrate.


According to New York-based think tank Intelligent Community Forum, Riverside is among the top 21 global cities listed in the 2010 edition of the “Smart 21,” the IFC’s yearly compilation of communities that improve the quality of life by “using broadband and information technology to attract leading-edge businesses, stimulate job creation, build skills, generate economic growth and improve the delivery of government services.”


One big reason that Riverside was chosen as a “Smart 21” community was for its recent efforts, starting in 2006, to provide the city with free wireless Internet access. The goal was to offer nearly complete citywide coverage using an AT&T-built network, says Steve Reneker, the city’s chief information officer and executive director of SmartRiverside. Under a deal forged between the city and the communication services giant, local residents would get free Wi-Fi while AT&T would use the service to advertise on it and promote its even better, faster service to those willing to pay for it.


But the idea of blanketing nearly the entire city with a free Wi-Fi network appears to have fallen short of its expectations—and it’s running into problems and uncertainty. One issue is that more than a few Riversiders contend that the service is nearly impossible to log on to and is unreliable at best.


“I don’t use the City’s Free Wi-Fi because I can’t get it,” says resident Martin Knight who lives in the Wood Streets neighborhood and complained via local columnist Dan Bernstein. “I can see the antennas for it all down Palm [Avenue]. Yet another empty promise and a big joke for the city of Riverside. I had big hopes of saving money with my Internet services. It’s a good thing I didn’t hold my breath.”


Adding salt to the wound, not too many people—20 percent—are actually using the freebie service, according to a La Sierra University survey.


Reneker tackles the programs shortcomings, including, for example, the fact that Wi-Fi coverage will never reach 100 percent, but adding that there “are now 1,620 access points deployed by AT&T,” referring to the devices mounted on city poles and light signals throughout the city that comprise the wireless network.


“Each one broadcasts a signal approximately 500 feet, but the ability to get the signal all depends on terrain or tree coverage,” Reneker says. In other words, you can count on trees and hills getting in the way of your online browsing.


“In cases, such as in our Wood streets where there are lots of areas, lots of old trees, you have to buy a higher strength modem device for your home to pick up the city’s signal,” Reneker says. “Unfortunately, AT&T is not able to provide additional access points for us at this time.”


Reneker admits that the program had a 95 percent goal of coverage for the city, but since AT&T is no longer building additional access points, that goal now hinges on potential federal stimulus money—$5.1 million—the city is hoping to get its hands on to finish the job.


Reneker does say that people who have complaints can call 311 to get assistance. “We log all of our calls, and get an average of about 15 a month at that 311 center,” he says. “Unfortunately, for people who live in tall buildings [or] are more than 500 feet away from the devices, they would have to buy a specialized modem to connect to the Wi-Fi network.”


AT&T’s hope was that people who used the free service (which would be ad-supported), would switch over to a premium paid plan, Reneker says.


“But, unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out for them,” he says, adding that AT&T might be handing over the network to another provider, possibly the city itself.


To be fair, despite how the touted free Wi-Fi has turned out, the nonprofit SmartRiverside has made a difference, helping to collect and dispose of e-waste, refurbishing old PCs which are then turned over to low-income families, among other altruistic efforts in bridging the digital divide for those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder.


But as far as free Wi-Fi goes, you might want to stick to your friendly neighborhood coffee shop. 


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