Talk about an impressive magic trick!
How do you make $6 million vanish in front of a whole city’s eyes?
It ain’t easy. It takes years, and you need to keep a low profile. But Connect Akron is proof it can be done.
OK, that’s a slight exaggeration. If you look really, really closely, you can find signs that Connect Akron exists, and that it might even be growing. But compared to the fanfare that accompanied its launch four years ago, the program to provide free Internet access throughout the city has been a nuclear bomb.
Connect Akron was billed not only as a way to give Akron’s safety forces consistent access to broadband communication speeds, but, in blanketing 62 square miles of the city, it also would provide free Internet access to the masses. All a resident would need is a cheap laptop, and he or she could join the online world.
That was certainly a worthwhile goal. With each passing year, life becomes a bit more difficult for folks who are still offline. But how do you bring them onboard, and at what price?
In 2010 — eight years after the city started pushing the concept and two years after the project began, thanks in part to $5 million in direct and indirect gifts from the Knight Foundation and $800,000 from taxpayers — I carted a laptop around downtown Akron to see how well the system was working. As I reported then, it contained holes the size of Jupiter.
I could not get a connection inside CitiCenter or Main Place or City Hall or the library. All of those places are within one block of South Main Street, ground zero for the entire project.
A little over a month ago, reader David McCann ran his own experiment and reported in an email that little has changed:
“Standing in front of the Federal Building ... no connection.
“The Martin Center on the University of Akron campus ... no connection.
“Inside the Polsky building ... no connection.
“Sitting at Cascade Plaza ... no connection.
“Sitting inside the Lock 3 restaurant ... no connection.
“In making a courtesy inquiry, it went like this: mayor’s office ... to University of Akron data processing ... to University of Akron president’s office ... to city of Akron service director ... to city of Akron Information Services.
“After the great roll-out of this program, what happened?”
Well, David, not only do we still have the same problems we had two years ago, but also we’ve developed some new ones.
We still have the problem of our downtown buildings being constructed too well. Their massive amounts of concrete and steel degrade the wireless signal so badly that you can’t get reception inside without adding a piece of equipment to amplify it.
We still have the problem of too few owners of private buildings willing to accept free placement of a radio on their roof in exchange for the tiny additional amount the radio would add to their monthly electric bill.
And we still have the monumental problem of the city’s representatives failing miserably to reach an agreement with FirstEnergy for mounting the radios on poles.
After literally years of failed negotiations over the use of existing streetlight poles, that possibility is dead. Now the two sides have stalled over the erection of smaller, stand-alone poles. But more on that in a minute.
The latest fly in the Connect Akron ointment is something that most folks view as a technological breakthrough: the explosion of smart phones.
Fully 35 percent of all Americans own one. The accompanying surge in 3G and 4G cell networks has all but eliminated the need for Akron’s safety forces to connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi.
Factor in the many offices, coffee shops, restaurants, stores and campuses that now offer free Wi-Fi, and the whole concept of Connect Akron seems a lot less pressing than it did four years ago.
“You’ve got a lot of people who are going to use their smart phone to access the Web; they’re not even using laptops anymore,” says Brett Lindsey, chief operating officer of OneCommunity, the Cleveland nonprofit that has worked closely with Akron officials and essentially serves as the project’s vendor.
However, Lindsey says, “I still think Wi-Fi has a place, because you still have folks who want to work on laptops. You’re not going to use a mobile phone for everything, especially as [we] push to bring health care and other services to the end user.”
True. But the lure of a mammoth Wi-Fi network was much more attractive just a few years ago. So attractive, in fact, that money for Connect Akron came pouring in from multiple sources.
In addition to the Knight Foundation, which ponied up $625,000 directly and another $4.5 million to create the Knight Center for Digital Excellence (a think tank for this and similar projects that was closed in 2009), the University of Akron, Goodyear and others also opened their wallets.
Feds get involved
Then, two years ago, along came the federal government, tossing $2 million of stimulus money into Akron’s Internet pot to provide low-income folks with free, refurbished computers and lessons on how to use them.
That grant has paid for training 4,030 people and distributing 3,700 refurbished computers, says Kimberly Irvin-Lee, who runs the Connect Your Community program for the Akron Urban League.
But although her operation has connected 3,500 people to the Internet, the vast majority of them are tapped into Time Warner or AT&T, rather than Connect Akron.
A mere 300 households have been able to get online via the free network, Irvin-Lee says. “If they live close to the Urban League, they can connect, because we have an antenna on our roof.”
But, she says, even people who live nearby might struggle if their houses are made of brick.
So ... is Connect Akron pretty much dead in the water?
UA perks up
The University of Akron recently stepped forward to take a leadership role, guided by Jim Sage, the school’s vice president of information technology.
UA is pressing the issue for three reasons, he says:
• “We want to serve our students” living in off-campus housing.
• “We have a lot of wireless experience. We were the first campus in the country to be wired indoors and outdoors, so we’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge about wireless and what it takes to support it.
• “We’re pretty good at managing large projects.”
They’d better be. Part of the problem with Connect Akron is that so many entities are involved.
Sage says UA has contributed $50,000 to Connect Akron, with $50,000 more in the pipeline, and has committed $250,000 worth of in-kind money in the form of support services.
He would love to extend Connect Akron throughout University Park, an area mainly south and east of the campus where thousands of students live in privately owned housing.
His secondary goal is pulling in the downtown area near East Exchange and South Main streets, where a big, private student apartment complex opened in 2009 and another will open in the fall of 2013.
What needs to happen to get this show on the road?
“The primary thing is for Ohio Edison and the city and OneCommunity and the university to just cooperate and collaborate,” Sage says.
“We need the Ohio Edison poles to be installed and be affordable. We need the cost of the power provided on those poles to be affordable.
“These antennas consume roughly $3 worth of power a month. So if we could get the cost in that range per radio, that would make this network sustainable.”
Lack of access points
Finding locations for the radios has been a nightmare from Day One.
The point man for the city, Deputy Mayor Dave Lieberth, says he and OneCommunity initially hoped the units could be installed on existing utility poles.
He says OneCommunity had been negotiating with Ohio Edison for months when Edison’s parent company, FirstEnergy, decided to tap a new revenue stream and sold the rights for all its poles in a three-state area to Diamond Communications of New Jersey.
After a year’s worth of negotiations with Diamond, Lieberth says, the two sides were so far apart that OneCommunity gave up.
The whole idea became moot last year when FirstEnergy’s standards group decided it could not allow the equipment to be mounted to its streetlights, because the brackets and arms were not designed for the extra weight.
Early on, the city considered mounting the radios on the arms of its own traffic stoplights, but feared powering the radios would interfere with the operation of the lights. That problem eventually was solved by installing separate power outlets for the radios.
Since then, about 50 units have been mounted on stoplights, to go along with about 20 on various buildings.
But many more locations are needed.
And so, with FirstEnergy’s streetlights out of the question, FirstEnergy told OneCommunity it would be willing to erect thinner, shorter, stand-alone poles for the radios if OneCommunity were willing to pay for them and the power to run the radios.
That subject was broached a year ago, but the two sides still haven’t managed to work anything out.
FirstEnergy lays the entire problem squarely at the feet of OneCommunity.
Not enough talk
FirstEnergy spokesman Mark Durbin says Diamond initially offered OneCommunity the same price FirstEnergy had offered before selling its pole rights — and then, at the urging of FirstEnergy, offered to cut the price substantially.
“OneCommunity felt they still could do things more cheaply, and Diamond tried to work with them on that as well,” Durban says.
“Diamond was very proactive in trying to work with OneCommunity, but they simply stopped communicating with anyone.”
He says OneCommunity hasn’t even contacted FirstEnergy since the initial meeting about new poles, adding, “The lack of communications seems to be a pattern with OneCommunity.”
When pressed, OneCommunity’s Lindsey says the whole situation boils down to this: “The challenge is the expense to cover the cost of setting the new pole and the recurring charges for it were not originally contemplated in the budget.”
Well, that’s hardly FirstEnergy’s fault.
Meanwhile, Lieberth, the deputy mayor, is the first to admit things have not gone well.
“It’s a plan that has not been fulfilled,” he says. “There’s no question about it.”
At this point, he says, he is no longer certain just how much of it will ever be fulfilled.
“We’re still in process of doing an accounting to see how much funding is left from the original budget and what else needs to be done.
“We know we can complete this University Park thing, and that’s pretty important to us.”
Even that modest goal is still up in the air — and flying through the same old turbulence.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.