Promote Wireless for Underserved Communities

I think there is an important role the for the city here. I'm concerned that while we've done a great job promoting some aspects, we haven't made a lot of progress in harnessing wireless technologies to address access for underserved communities. The council has heard from a lot of local experts, but the discussion has tended to focus on other areas, such as economic development concerns. So, I was hoping to direct some attention to the so-called digital divide issue.

Here is the text of my statement.

Statement of Chip Rosenthal
Council Committee for Telecommunications Infrastructure
May 26, 2004

Thank you Mayor Pro Tem and Councilmembers.

My name is Chip Rosenthal. I'm a technology consultant and a member of the Telecommunications Commission. I'd like to speak to you today on the role that the city can play in encouraging wireless technologies. I know this is a topic that you've given a lot of attention recently. I also know that you've heard from a range of industry and community leaders on this topic. I'd like to thank you for the opportunity to share my perspective on the issue.

I believe there are several reasons why wireless technologies are important to Austin. The first reason is for economic development interests. Wireless technologies, particularly unlicensed spectrum and spread spectrum technologies, are, potentially, what we call "disruptive" technologies. When successful, disruptive technologies remold markets. Austin can--and is--working to position itself as a center of these new, disruptive technologies.

Second, ubiquitous wireless Internet access enhances our city and makes it a more attractive place to visit and live. The recent unwiring of Republic Park--that is, the deployment of free wireless Internet access in the park--is a good example of this. Projects such as this help create a city I'm excited to call home.

These two reasons--economic development and livable city--are powerful justifications for us to pursue wireless technologies. I believe there is a third reason, which may not have received the same level of attention as these two, but is just as powerful.

Wireless technologies may offer us the ability to provide new access opportunities, and work to bridge what we often call the digital divide.

I believe wireless technologies will offer increased access opportunities because they may be provided with a significantly less costly infrastructure. It's very expensive to trench cable or fiber, and then deploy or upgrade the network equipment. Incumbent providers aren't going to offer low-cost access unless they can be assured of the return on their significant investment.

Emerging wireless technologies, on the other hand, offer the potential of broadband connectivity with low-cost infrastructure.

The wireless technologies to connect communities inexpensively are not quite here yet, but they are coming. The current Wi-Fi standard is designed to unwire local area networks, say in an office setting. It provides access up to 300 feet. A new technology called WiMax is designed to unwire metropolitan area networks. It's designed to reach up to 31 miles. What Wi-Fi is doing for the coffeeshop today, WiMax may do for entire sections of the city.

WiMax is not here now, but it is coming. Many companies, such as Intel, have placed heavy bets on the technology. A recent Wall Street Journal article indicated experts believe it will be widely available within two years. So while this is not something you can go down to the store and purchase today, it's something we're going to start hearing a lot about very soon.

Returning to my three reasons for pursuing wireless technologies (economic development, livable city, and digital divide), we've got a lot of people who have stepped up to the plate to take on the first two. But what about the third? I believe this is an area where the city can show some vision.

Before we can solve a problem, we need to define it. Right now, I'm not sure we have a particularly good handle on the availability and utilization of technology within our community. Therefore, it would be helpful if the city conducted a technology survey, to determine which technologies our citizens are using and where they are using them.

We should, for instance, survey the current deployment of wired broadband Internet access. Next we can identify the reasons some communities are less well served. Finally, we can identify a plan to harness these emerging wireless technologies to provide increased access.

So, among the myriad of reasons and justifications for supporting wireless technologies, let us not forget that emerging wireless technologies will offer us new opportunities to improve access for underserved communities. This is an area where the city is well suited to take a leadership role.

So, that's my statement and I'm sticking to it. For more info on WiMax, here are some good additional references:


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re: Promote Wireless for Underserved Communities

Thanks for fighting the good fight!

One comment: although the phrase "disruptive technology" is a useful one when speaking to the right audience, I'd be careful about using it outside the tech-biz-geek universe. A disruptive technology must sound to lay ears like something that's going to cause massive power outages, help Al Qaeda blow up buldings and mess with your garage door opener.

re: Promote Wireless for Underserved Communities

Chip -

"We should, for instance, survey the current deployment of wired broadband Internet access. Next we can identify the reasons some communities are less well served. Finally, we can identify a plan to harness these emerging wireless technologies to provide increased access."

These are excellent points and I'm glad you made them to the Telecomm Infrastructure Committee. Perhaps the city should focus on making all the public libraries wireless, and include some parks in East Austin (Northeast and Southeast, as well). At any rate, you're right that this kind of subject matter gets a lot of lip service, but not a lot of real action. Maybe we can change that.

Also, I like what you had to say about WiMax... I hadn't heard of that before. It sounds very exciting! Thanks!