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Ward Wide Web

Will Old Brooklyn's free WiFi be an example or a warning for others?



Kevin Kelley once called his plan for Old Brooklyn "The Greatest Project in America."

So far, the project's greatness falls somewhere between the Hoover Dam and Chester, Pennsylvania's Guinness world record for "Most People Sanitizing Their Hands Simultaneously."

The councilman's goal — to shower Cleveland's aging, antiquated Ward 13 with free wireless internet access — is unmistakably admirable. The implementation has come with a few hitches.

Old Brooklyn isn't the first community in Northeast Ohio to offer free WiFi; downtown Akron and Cleveland's University Circle neighborhood have built free networks of differing sizes. Kelley's version, however, is completely publicly financed and targets an area that wouldn't normally be mistaken for tech savvy. And that's sort of the point.

"It's not just a technology project," says Kelley, who recently announced his candidacy for Cuyahoga County prosecutor. "It's a community and economic project to bring people to Old Brooklyn. We want people to be part of a progressive community — one with innovation, a neighborhood where people are doing things. We want to tell people that this is where you want to establish yourself: an educated, progressive city."

Back in 2007, Kelley settled on the idea of a WiFi network to help move Old Brooklyn out of the 19th century and into the 21st. But $100,000 in city seed money was nowhere near enough to get the project off the ground. Four years and several key partnerships later, Kelley earned council approval for $900,000 more — enough to cover installation and service.

In April of this year, the system went live ... and so did the complaints. Not only was connection speed more AOL dial-up than cable modem, it seemed residents actually trying to use the system couldn't get in touch with anyone in charge.

"It is being run so incompetently, I'd like to know where it's going," one resident wrote to Scene in June.

"I call City Hall, and they say, 'It has nothing to do with the city; it has to do with your councilman.' I called his office in Old Brooklyn, and every day they tell me the tech guy in charge isn't in."

Two inquiries from Scene to that tech guy were redirected to Kevin Kelley.

"We received those complaints," says Kelley, who adds a third ring to the circus: MyWiFiNation, the firm contracted to install the hardware and provide ongoing service to residents. Calls to that company's number used to head straight to voicemail. But with only five employees and a top priority of getting the network installed, MyWiFiNation, understandably, found itself swamped by tech and customer-service questions.

"We've made other arrangements and asked the company to step up their performance," says Kelley. "Our [problem] calls like that have dropped off, but there was a point in time where we were having customer-service problems."

The system as designed was intended for outdoor use, and while some users also fare well indoors, the purchase of a Nano Station Antenna is encouraged to ensure an adequate signal in the home — a new twist on the original promise of free service. That hardware sets residents back $79.99 — not exactly "free WiFi," but a far cry from the accumulated monthly payments of those who pony up for internet access.

By the end of August, MyWiFiNation had delivered upwards of 50 Nano Stations to Old Brooklyn residents. The library has trained 61 people and given away 45 computers — with plenty more for others who meet eligibility requirements for free hardware.

In late summer, the network's final components were installed, a little more than five months after the switch was first flipped. The big questions now are whether it's fast enough to be useful — and if not, whether residents will use it anyway.

"I think it's a darn good start," says Kelley. "Our goal is to have everyone in Ward 13 be proficient and able to use the technology that's available. Obviously, I would like it to be perfect and it's not. But I would say that we let people know that we're substantially complete, even though there's still going to be bugs and things to work out. We told people, 'Just be patient. We're going to get to 100 percent.'"

Pete Kunser is proud of his handiwork, but slightly less optimistic than Kelley. "I'd say there will be 90 percent coverage," says the owner of MyWiFiNation. "There's never going to be 100 percent."

An unscientific tour of Old Brooklyn with an iPad and a 2000 Saturn reveals the signal disparity. At the Family Dollar at Pearl and Broadview, it wouldn't even connect. Same with Spring and Broadview. Just up the road at a CVS on State, however, there was a full signal. Most of the tested areas had at least an average connection: not strong enough to download Titanic off BitTorrent, but enough to effectively search for pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio.

That's likely not strong enough to make Old Brooklyn a test flyer for other area municipalities considering WiFi.

Throughout the past decade, cities from San Francisco to Boston have drawn up plans to launch free wireless networks. More have been scrapped than have actually come to fruition, the dreams of free internet for all halted by the two-fold stopper of start-up costs and maintenance. Even Old Brooklyn's million-dollar effort now looks more like $1.3 mil, according to Kelley's conservative estimate.

Projects that have been completed around the country range in size and mission, from clouds that cover a few downtown blocks to a few square miles, like Old Brooklyn's system. For every one of them, tech support is an ongoing concern.

Meanwhile, incremental progress continues with Akron's WiFi, which is the result of a collaboration between the University of Akron, the city, and OneCommunity, a tech-friendly nonprofit development group that also launched University Circle's free WiFi, where maintenance and user expectations are works in progress as well.

"I think our projects are going well," says Brett Lindsey, OneCommunity's chief operating officer. "The difficulty is the public perception that you throw up a WiFi network and it should be free and fast. And it's not fair to whoever is installing and maintaining the network. I think sometimes the folks that have the means to buy [internet access] for themselves also tend to sometimes complain the most about free stuff."

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