Downtown wireless network a move in right direction

Late last month, the city of Lexington announced that it would do something innovative with existing infrastructure. No, of course I don’t mean preserving historically or economically significant buildings and local businesses; Lexington would never think to do that. Instead, I’m referencing the city council’s decision to transform the wireless internet infrastructure left by SkyTel into a high-speed wireless network downtown for use by city and university public safety officials.

To backtrack to 2005, SkyTel used Lexington as a site for its wireless pilot program. At either an hourly, daily or monthly fee, downtown Lexington was to be your own personal WiFi hotspot. But two years later, SkyTel abandoned their project and left the wireless infrastructure, selling it to the city for just $10. Now the city is doing something useful: increasing the communications ability of Lexington police, firefighters and EMS in our downtown. Lexington needs to, however, go one step further.

Perhaps the city could take a lesson from Philadelphia? In the past couple of years, the city of Philadelphia has made efforts to go from one of the nation’s largest and least-connected cities to the most connected of any city in the country. How are they doing this? Initially, the project was a collaboration between the non-profit Wireless Philadelphia and EarthLink. As has become the norm with large corporations, EarthLink failed to come through on its end of the bargain, so the venture was left to the city and the non-profit pioneers. What was once a venture that would only create a blanket network across the city has become something completely new. Now, wireless is free in Philadelphia. You don’t have to pay for it. At all. Novel idea, huh? Perhaps Lexington could spend up to $70 million that would otherwise go to building a jumbotron on the CentrePointe tower to invest in a free, all-encompassing wireless network for citizens.

Maybe this is just the pipe dream of a college student who doesn’t like having to pay the outrageous rates required by telecommunications companies for broadband Internet service. Or maybe it is just one of the many missing pieces in the puzzle that will eventually show Lexington to be the kind of world-class, mid-size city that it can be. But our city officials have been too caught up in the effort to appear world-class in time for the 2010 Equestrian Games, without actually doing anything to become world-class. And no, allowing a whole block in the center of downtown to be destroyed to make room for an out-of-scale tower meant for the unhealthily sprawling metropolis of Atlanta doesn’t equate with making progress towards ‘world-class status.’ In fact, it is quite the opposite.

Part of former Mayor Teresa Isaac’s reasoning for attracting the SkyTel pilot program was because wireless Internet has become a defining feature of innovative and intellectual cities, allowing startup businesses to cut costs and be globally connected with less effort and expense. For many, this is reason enough to invest in a wireless infrastructure. But perhaps, among other things, free wireless Internet throughout Lexington’s downtown would be a boon to our culture, as well as our economy.

Rather than being forced to stay at home or in the office to connect, the average Lexingtonian could sit in front of the courthouse, finally turning the plans for an innovative public space into something of a reality. And with each and every Lexingtonian being saved from hundreds of dollars annually in Internet fees, such money could be invested in a locally-grown, locally-owned and locally-operated economy. Now that is novel thinking. Perhaps Jim Newberry, President Todd, Dudley Webb and the Downtown Development Corporation could use some of it.