I took a little stroll the other morning to see what $6 million can buy.
You know what I discovered? In modern-day Akron, in the heart of the Midwest, in a place where the cost of living is significantly lower than in many parts of the country, $6 million can sometimes buy you ... nothing at all.
Nothing in the heart of town. Nothing on the edge of town. Nothing in any part of town.
Connect Akron is dead. May it rest in pieces.
When the grandiose plan was unveiled in 2008, the city billed it not only as a way to give safety forces consistent access to wireless broadband speeds, but also to bring free Internet access to the masses.
Anyone within a 62-square-mile area would be able to join the wired world for only the cost of a cheap laptop computer.
By 2010 — eight years after the city started pushing the concept and two years after the project actually began — Akron officials were backpedaling faster than an NFL cornerback.
By then, the geographic goal had been revised down to 11 square miles, with a mere 3.5 in place — essentially the downtown and a couple of nearby neighborhoods. But even that little 3.5-square-mile zone was full of massive holes.
And now the plug has been pulled. The $6 million plug.
This program received $5 million in direct and indirect grants from the Knight Foundation, $800,000 from Akron taxpayers and $50,000 from the University of Akron. Goodyear and others chipped in, as well.
And that’s not counting a related project: $2 million of federal stimulus money to provide low-income folks with free, refurbished computers and lessons on how to use them.
UA had $50,000 more in the pipeline and a commitment to spend another $250,000 of in-kind money. Fortunately, those funds were not tapped before Connect Akron’s wheels fell off.
The top information technology experts for both the city and the university say the final nail in Connect Akron’s coffin was the explosion of smartphones.
Cellular service on 3G and 4G networks “has become ubiquitous and affordable,” says Jim Sage, VP for information technology at the University of Akron.
“Free Wi-Fi hot spots are popping up in many locations, [such as] coffee shops, restaurants, libraries, universities, etc.”
Why didn’t the powers that be see this coming? When it came to Connect Akron, the powers that be didn’t see anything coming.
When asked in 2010 why the project had fallen so far below expectations, now-retired Deputy Mayor Dave Lieberth said, “The thing we are learning is that Akron is not well-suited to wireless because of hilly topography, mature vegetation and buildings that have been built too well.”
God forbid someone would have done a little research on those matters before launching a multimillion-dollar project.
But that was just the start of the difficulties. Another monumental hang-up was the placement of the radios needed to handle the wireless signals. The city originally thought it could mount them on existing utility poles or its own traffic lights. Neither panned out, for a combination of technical and financial reasons.
The city also figured the owners of downtown buildings would be thrilled to let the city put radios on their roofs, giving them free wireless in exchange for paying the relatively small electric bills to power them. Not so much.
The issue with poles went on and on. Negotiations started with existing poles, then turned into the proposed planting of new, smaller poles. But talks fell apart because OneCommunity, the Cleveland nonprofit that worked closely with city officials and essentially served as the project’s vendor, walked away.
FirstEnergy told me in November that OneCommunity “simply stopped negotiating.”
Brett Lindsey, the chief operating officer of OneCommunity, responded by saying, “The challenge is that the expense to cover the cost of setting the new poles and the recurring charges for [electricity] were not originally contemplated in the budget.”
Nobody thought of that, either?
Late last year, a glimmer of hope remained. UA offered to take a leadership role with the hope of serving students in off-campus housing. But the inability of the city and OneCommunity to get serious with FirstEnergy popped that balloon.
Providing Wi-Fi to off-campus students remains a goal, and UA’s technology expert Sage says he has “proposed we take what’s left in the project budget, about $75,000, and use it to extend the university’s network into areas [where] our students reside off campus.”
A beneficial side effect would be providing free outdoor Wi-Fi to other residents of those areas. On campus, the general public already can tap into UA’s free network, labeled “UAGuest.”
If you roam around town with a smartphone or laptop, you might still see “Connect Akron” popping up in some locations. But that is just the last remnants of the network as it is dismantled — empty signals from radios that are still powered up but no longer linked to the Internet.
The city’s chief information technology officer, Rick Schmahl, who inherited this mess, says continuing Connect Akron made no sense now that “everybody [is] carrying smartphones with Internet speeds faster than what Connect Akron was able to deliver.”
In addition, continuing the service would have required upgrades to the system, and “we don’t have the funds to do the upgrades when there just isn’t the demand for it like there was years ago when it was first thought of.”
And therein lies the best news of the day: Nobody will invest another dime in this boondoggle.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.