FEATURE ‌ No Strings Attached 

A private local partnership readies to launch a free, citywide WiFi network downtown

For a while now, the City of Charleston has been exploring ways to provide wireless internet access to users on the peninsula. The launch has been pushed back a couple of times — a soft opening of the service was initially planned for November 2005, then mid-January of this year. But it's finally about to become a reality, without taxpayers getting shafted in the process.

The job's been farmed out to two companies — the Charleston-based Evening Post Publishing Co., which owns The Post and Courier, and Widespread Access, a telecom company with a Mt. Pleasant HQ. Together they've formed AccessCharleston.com and in exchange for agreeing to invest approximately a half million bucks in the service, the suppliers have won a five-year contract.

Evening Post Publishing plans to make back its investment by selling more newspaper subscriptions to users and online ad space to businesses. Widespread Access, meanwhile, will offer bumped-up subscription packages with faster access and more bells and whistles.

"We're throttling free access at 250KB per second," says Sam Staley, president of Widespread Access. Even so, at around 10 times the speed of a dial-up connection, that should suit a casual user. "We'll probably charge $19.99 a month for a higher speed," he says. The company plans to offer one megabyte per second to start, with up to three MPS soon after — enough to check out the other incentives available. "ESPN 360 is one that we'd like to include," says Staley, "that's been a popular request."

Using a mixed bag of nodes, phased-array panels, and mesh networks (if you have to ask, then you probably wouldn't understand the answer), WA's aim is to offer 90 percent outdoor and 70 percent indoor coverage across the lower peninsula for its rollout. "Our goal is for it to be a ubiquitous service," says Staley, "with a grand opening on March 31. But at least some of the service should be available by the end of January or February 1."

Indoor users unlucky enough to be in the remaining 30 percent or live just outside the six-mile coverage area will be able to purchase wireless modems to boost their reception, and it's not just public spaces or participating businesses that will get the signal. That has been the case in the past, with Chamber of Commerce-sponsored areas dubbed "Thinkspots" established in 2003 that can be used with prepaid cards.

"The U.S. has gone from number one to number 16 in the world for broadband usage," says Ernest Andrade of the Charleston Digital Corridor, a knowledge based company with partners in the private and public sectors. "We want to slip away the impediments to broadband usage."

For Andrade, Charleston's WiFi venture is a testament to dogged execution. "We just stay in the trenches," he says. "For me, the drivers are legislative, political, and content-oriented, not technological. The most significant aspect of the WiFi project is that it doesn't use public funds."

The involvement of a media company will help to take the edge off arguments from existing service providers that the competition's unfair. Big-name broadband providers like BellSouth and Comcast started bellyaching when Columbia decided to plan a WiFi service last year, and the bitching has only increased in volume with Charleston's plans. But the big telecom companies will still have far fancier content than WA's effort. "Our biggest rival is content," says Andrade. "As hardware becomes more robust and mainstream and less expensive, there'll be an increased usage of broadband across the board."

Although it's footing a sizeable portion of the bill, Evening Post Publishing will save a few pennies by recycling content from its P&C website, Charleston.net, for the new WiFi site. "When you connect you'll be greeted by a portal to the City," Staley explains, "with location and time-based information. It'll act as your entryway into what's going on in Charleston."

There's still a long way to go before everybody has WiFi access. The providers hope to extend their service beyond the peninsula in the near future, working in phases and involving users in their plans. "This is an open network," Staley states, "we want people contributing to it. It's a community-type portal."

The way Andrade tells it, the success or failure of the service rests on the users. "It's the community's role to validate what's going on," he says. "This is just the beginning. But it can definitely be used as a model to stimulate economic growth." Even if the new service doesn't encourage that growth, it's worth establishing just to see the phone and cable companies sweat.


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