Saturday, February 02, 2008

Why no Wi-Fi in the 'burgh?

The other day I heard a disturbing factoid on the radio- Mayor Luke Raventstahl's administration has put city-wide Wi-Fi on ice. In the not-so-distant past, local politicians crowed about a new program that allowed anybody in the downtown area free wireless access to the Internet for two hours a day. This service is indeed still available there, but plans to expand access from the West End to the East Hills have been shelved. Apparently it would cost the city "millions of dollars" for that type of widespread service. So our fearless leaders have resolved to sit back and wait for six months to a year. Perhaps new technology will inspire some company to provide the system at no cost. Or maybe the necessary equipment will become radically cheaper soon. This conjecture comes on the heels of a limited period in which companies were offering it all to cities for free.

Councilman Bill Peduto (who has been active in driving a proposal for citywide Wi-Fi) supports the wait-and-see attitude. Despite the perception that he is among the more progressive politicos in our community, he appears to prefer the conservative approach on this issue. That's a real shame, because we are in the position of having to depend on the few forward-thinkers in town if anything is ever going to get done. It seems that if it has to do with a major sports team, it's a priority. But if it entails widespread benefit to city residents, yet no particular prestige for bureaucratic functionaries, then there is an almost infinite reserve of patience available from the Mayor and City Council.

I'm constantly hearing complaints that Pittsburgh fails to attract and maintain a vibrant population of young people. Now that I am a married homeowner approaching middle age, that's not a particularly imminent concern for me. However, it seems to me that those who embrace such attitudes should be fighting tooth-and-nail for comprehensive Wi-Fi now. Who needs the provision of free Internet services most? What demographic is most active on the World Wide Web? Who would benefit most from being able to go out to the cafe and bar and still get meaningful work done in the prized moments between bouts of socialization? Do we want a dynamic atmosphere to give the impression that we are an 'edgy' city worthy of long term investment? Or is business-as-usual a satisfactory strategy?

Personally I've heard just about enough out of Ravenstahl and Peduto about entertaining new ideas to take us into a bright and shiny future. I'm a hockey fan, so I'm glad the Penguins are getting an arena... but enough already. We give lip service to improving the quality of life for the kids, but then divert all our attention to the exploits of a bunch of grown children playing their silly games. So many people invest so much energy into something they have no control over, and no real stake in. You want to experience a truly dead city? Go out on to the streets of Pittsburgh while the Steelers are on television. Believe's the best time to go to the grocery store or the laundromat. There is an eerie silence, and nothing moves outdoors.

Many will protest that watching their football heroes brings people together. Unfortunately a collective of folks congregating over nonsense is mostly wasted, unless they are actually interacting instead of watching television. Meanwhile the Internet is constantly inspiring real connectivity- not just locally, but internationally. Perhaps true engagement requires occupying a meaningful position on the global grid. Just because the possibilities of the Internet are virtually limitless doesn't mean we should be intimidated by it. We're going to remain an isolated and provincial backwater until we fully embrace fresh sources of information exchange. What better way would there be to demonstrate such a commitment than to ensure that everyone here has unlimited wireless Internet access?

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Blogger Mark Rauterkus said...

I was fighting for comprehensive wifi then. I knew that the old deal that the others crafted and loved was more bunk than not.

Thanks for your post.

WiFi would be nice. But, getting voting machines that are sure to count our votes would be great too.

10:39 PM  
Blogger John Morris said...

I need to study this more but as far as know, there is a very strong connection between the wi-fi access and density levels. Providing Wi-Fi in areas like the south side with lots of buildings, businesses and lots of people living close by is pretty easy. There would be plenty of places to bounce the signals and one would be feeding off of the free wireless that some businesses already provide.

But, in the low density areas, it's a black hole. It's not realistic and it's just political crap to say it can be with the current technology and city budget.

7:13 AM  
Blogger John Morris said...

This fits the general political pattern of offering new pieces of candy near elections. By the time, the scheme, proves to be phony, the politician is in office and dangling the next piece of candy in front of the voters-- most of whom were watching the pee wee football draft.

7:19 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


I share your sentiments about priorities. Having accurate voting machines is a nationwide concern.


I'm also lacking the necessary technological knowledge required to speak about the logistics of setting up citywide wi-fi. I think the type of system you are talking about (a "mesh network") does indeed require adequate density. But I think with towers and signal boosters, a co-op system is doable. Anyway I talked to a couple of guys today who have a lot of experience with this sort of thing, and they said it shouldn't be that big of a problem.

Having said all of that, I share your skepticism regarding politically expedient problems and their immaterial qualities.

4:40 PM  

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