You might be surprised to learn that the person who coined the term “Wi-Fi” lives in Bath.
Same guy who persuaded Bill Gates to use the word in 2001, when Gates was preparing to roll out his Windows XP operating system.
That would be Phil Belanger, who moved here from the Silicon Valley in 1996 to help spin off wireless equipment company Aironet from Telxon and liked our area well enough to stick around.
So when Belanger talks about wireless networks, I listen. Raptly.
Belanger has inside knowledge of the rise and fall of Akron’s $6 million Wi-Fi disaster, Connect Akron, and some intriguing things to say about it.
But first, a bit more background.
Belanger, a native of Boston, was a founding partner of the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, which persuaded computer-makers to adopt a universal technical standard for linking their computers to wireless networks. He presided over the selection of the Wi-Fi name and logo.
But the term might never have become universal had he not managed to catch the ear of Bill Gates in 2001.
The world’s richest man was preparing to tout XP’s ability to automatically connect to wireless networks. Gates planned to refer to the standardization of wireless by using its engineering term, “802.11b” — a marketing expert’s worse nightmare. Fortunately, at Belanger’s urging, Gates went with “Wi-Fi” during Microsoft’s big XP launch.
Belanger brought Apple on board as well. Apple originally called the technology “AirPort,” but backed off and limited that name to its wireless products.
Who knew this guy lived in Akron?
He surfaced, via a friend of his, after my recent column about Connect Akron, which is dead and buried after more than five years of utter futility.
He knew the problems
Connect Akron originally was touted as a way to deliver free wireless Internet service to 62 square miles of the city. That grandiose plan soon was scaled back to 12 square miles, but the system never worked decently even in its tiny 3.5-acre core downtown.
The reasons offered for Connect Akron’s failure have been numerous, but one the city repeatedly cited was that nobody knew how difficult it would be to create a wireless network in Akron, given our hilly topography, mature vegetation and thick-walled buildings.
Well, Phil Belanger knew.
During Connect Akron’s formative stage, his consulting firm, Novarum, was hired by OneCommunity, the driving force behind the project, to survey the Akron area and come up with a plan of attack.
Belanger’s folks measured and analyzed radio activity in the area, other networks in existence and sources of interference, plotted them all on maps and designed a specific way to deal with Akron’s special challenges.
OneCommunity essentially ignored Belanger’s plan, which called for different hardware and about twice the number of radio units, or “access points,” than were eventually drawn up. That resulted in an infrastructure that, even on paper, was way too sparse, he says.
This began in late 2008, the same year the Knight Foundation anted up $4.5 million to start the Knight Center for Digital Excellence and, along with the OneCommunity, opened an Akron office with seven employees.
Only a year later, the center was closed, with some employees moving to OneCommunity’s offices in Cleveland.
Plenty of pomp
If nothing else, the launch party was a big success.
“Wow, [OneCommunity] did good parties,” Belanger says during a 90-minute interview. “The mayor came, and everybody came, and everybody was excited and talking about the 12-square-mile area.
“Well, anybody who was working on the project said, ‘Wait a minute! The emperor has no clothes! There’s no way we’re going to meet what [OneCommunity is] proclaiming.’
“But everybody kept their mouth shut because we didn’t want to damage the project.
“Looking back on it, I think the fundamental problem was this disconnect between their pitch — what they were selling the city on — and what they could actually do. ...
“They were really good at getting the funding [and] sometimes getting free equipment. They were really good at the deal, but not so good at execution.”
Belanger says OneCommunity never adjusted to new information that came along. For instance, he says, when it became obvious that placing access points on FirstEnergy’s light poles would be far more expensive than expected, the business model wasn’t changed.
“They sold the city on this great vision, and when it was clear it wasn’t going to happen, they never updated it. They just kept getting funding.”
Although Akron residents have nothing to show for their $800,000 in tax money — nor does the Knight Foundation, the University of Akron and others whose direct and indirect contributions amounted to more than $5 million — we do know where some of the money went.
When shown portions of OneCommunity’s Form 990 tax returns, Belanger declares himself “grumpy.”
In 2009, OneCommunity, a nonprofit operation that got most of its funding from federal tax dollars, paid its president and CEO, Scot Rourke, a whopping $302,010. The VP and chief financial officer, Mark Ansboury, made $282,959.
In all, seven OneCommunity employees were paid more than $140,000 that year.
In 2010, Rourke’s income grew to $406,598.
“The VP level for 200k? I’m not going to [complain] about that for private enterprise, or maybe even for a nonprofit in the Silicon Valley,” Belanger says. “But in Cleveland and Akron, Ohio? Come on!”
I wanted to ask Robert Briggs about this, because Briggs, as chairman of the Knight Foundation and a former member of the OneCommunity board, is uniquely positioned to weigh in on the group’s finances. But Briggs declined multiple requests for an interview.
Belanger emphasizes that OneCommunity’s leaders have departed since he worked on Connect Akron and says he has great respect for the current CEO, Lev Gonick, who came aboard this year. But he believes the Rourke regime “sold Akron a bill of goods.”
Rourke wouldn’t talk with me, either. Apparently, people at the heart of Connect Akron are extremely eager to distance themselves from the project. Little wonder.
Their critic, Belanger, is the first to admit the problem with obtaining rights to FirstEnergy’s poles was an enormous stumbling block. Although rooftop and traffic-light mounting positions picked up some of the slack, the lack of access to light poles was crushing.
Belanger was part of the early negotiations with FirstEnergy and says the company’s financial demands were so high — “exorbitant” — that he believes FirstEnergy simply didn’t want to participate in the free wireless network.
Negotiations between OneCommunity and FirstEnergy and its subsidiaries dragged on for years. Even when Belanger was still part of the talks, FirstEnergy wanted about $950 to mount each unit and $30 per month forever after (the units consume about $3 worth of electricity per month). Multiply those costs by hundreds of poles and the budget collapses.
In July 2011, FirstEnergy engineers suddenly declared the poles off-limits at any price because the poles hadn’t been designed for the extra weight. The company then offered to negotiate the erection of new, shorter, thinner poles. Soon after, according to FirstEnergy, OneCommunity simply walked away.
OneCommunity’s current chief operating officer, Brett Lindsey, disputes that assertion. But Lindsey, who joined the firm in October 2010, also said during an interview in his office in downtown Cleveland that, by 2011, the numbers were essentially irrelevant.
He shared an internal OneCommunity memo from November 2011 that said “there is no budget available to pay for poles to be installed” and “there is no budget available to pay for monthly power invoices.”
They would gladly pay you Tuesday for some light poles today.
Concept was sound
Belanger thinks Connect Akron “was a good idea. It was just poorly executed.”
He still thinks it’s a good idea, even if some of its former participants do not. The head technology officers for both the city of Akron and UA said last month that the explosion of tablets and smartphones, with their 3G and 4G networks, has lessened the need for free wireless.
Belanger, who has worked closely with cellphone companies on rollouts of their networks, says the opposite is true.
“There is more demand for such networks now,” he says.
Why? As most smartphone users know, connecting to the Internet via a wireless system is essentially free, whereas exceeding your monthly quota for cellular data can send you to the poor house.
The load on cell networks is so heavy that the cellphone providers themselves are trying to figure out how to off-load some of the traffic.
Belanger says one of the things happening behind the scenes in the tech world is an attempt to automatically and seamlessly transfer cellular connections to Wi-Fi connections whenever a free Wi-Fi signal is within range.
OneCommunity’s Lindsey says that is being done in some locations already, and adds that a free or low-cost community wireless network is still the best way for poor folks to gain access to the Internet.
That won’t happen in Akron. The money is gone, the existing equipment is outdated and the city has simply lost its will.
Six million bucks.
And not much fun while it lasted.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.