Let’s go back to February 13, 2007. America was listening to Beyonce’s number one hit “Irreplacable” while waiting for Nicolas Cage to make a fool of himself in Ghost Rider. Just days erlier newly announced Presidential candidate Barrack Obama had made his first gaffe and Asia watchers were excited by the announcement that the US and North Korea had reached a tenative agreement on the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear disarmament. And on the local scene, progressives throughout Houston were pleased when the City announced that Earthlink had been selected as the provider for the soon to be built municipal wi-fi network, which was supposed to be operational by the spring of 2009.
Let’s skip ahead six months to August 30, 2007. Rhianna’s debut single “Umbrella” and the Plain White T’s “Hey Delilah” were burning up the charts; America had come to know and love “McLovin” as a small film called Superbad worked its way into becomeing a pop culture phenomenon. Progressives throughout the country celebrated a ruling by an Iowa district court that legalized gay marriage in that state and Houston tech culture sighed at the announcement that, in order to stay competitive, Earthlink was getting out of the municipal wi-fi business and planned on paying the City of Houston a $5 million penalty.
In the fall of 2007 it seemed like municipal wi-fi was yet another promise that the city had made that was ultimately never going to be fulfilled. Until today that is. The City of Houston announced on Tuesday, March 29, that it had selected Israeli firm Alvarion to provide service for a municipal 4G wireless network. The network, which has been online in a test capacity for a year, allows the city to remotely control 2,500 traffic light intersections, 1,500 school zone flashers and monitor 30,000 water meters.
However, the thing that is sure to catch the attention of the tech community, progressives and community activists is the fact that the City will now be able to provide internet access to residents. The free wi-fi portion of the network is going to be administered through the Houston Public Library’s WeCAN program and will initially offer services to 10 neighborhoods.
Much of the press on the project has stated that the wi-fi network will provide internet access to 300,000 residents in underserved neighborhoods, but that’s debatable. The city has identified 10 starter neighorhoods for the network and while most of the areas are places like Gulfton and Fifth Ward, places where “underserved” is a polite way of saying bordering on third world status, there are two that are head scratchers.
It is written deep in Houston's charter that no mention of Fifth Ward is complete without one photo of Bushwick Bill
The city’s WeCAN website shows that the city will also be providing free wi-fi in downtown and midtown. While there are plenty of underserved people in midtown, quite a lot of them near the intersection of W. Alabama and Main in fact, the wi-fi network isn’t going anywhere near them. It’s going to be active in the area along W. Gray between Louisiana and Cushing St. In other words, right in the middle of some of the most expensive real estate inside the loop.
Pictured: The City of Houston's definition of an underserved neighborhood
To make matters worse, 24 hours after the municipal wi-fi network went live it experienced its first outages in Fifth Ward and Third Ward, two of the more undeserved communities. So after four years of development and questionable decisions about what areas will be served a day after Houston’s much anticipated municipal broadband network goes online its already down? Fantastic.