This year, the Elm City may go wireless.
New Haven officials plan to offer residents and local businesses citywide a subscription-based wireless Internet deal beginning this summer, Helen O’Keefe, director of the city’s Information Technology Office, said. But in order to ensure that the new service will achieve its aims, city officials will have to address the lack of computers among New Haven’s low income residents, as well as their potential inability to pay the subscription fees.
New Haven officials contracted with Civitium, a consulting firm for municipal governments interested in developing wireless networks, which delivered a report declaring New Haven wireless-capable, city Budget Director Frank Altieri said.
Further specifics of the coming wi-fi service will not be available until February, when the city will issue a request for business proposals from internet service providers, O’Keefe said.
“The format has not been identified yet,” she said. “There’s a great deal to be done as far as community participation and civilians will assist us with that.”
The initiative came from the Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s office, with the hope that citywide wi-fi will attract businesses and offer new opportunities to areas of the city that lag behind technologically, New Haven Director of Public Information Derek Slap said.
Still, the city has not yet devised a concrete plan to help citizens who lack access to computers.
“It’s something we’ve been thinking about from the beginning,” Slap said. “If you really want to bridge the digital divide, you have to look at helping low income families to have the hardware to use the [wireless] technology.”
O’Keefe said the city is considering developing a program to recycle old computers and may also create community access centers in areas facing economic development problems.
But Richard Sherwin, CEO of the New Haven-based wireless Internet provider Spot On Networks, said his company believes wireless Internet should be left for development as a private good and that he thinks the city is overstepping its bounds.
“I personally believe that it shouldn’t be the municipality that provides this kind of service because that puts a taint on it immediately,” Sherwin said. “The municipality is responsible for running the city, and therefore it should focus on telecom services for city people who operate city services.”
Sherwin’s company has already constructed wi-fi devices throughout the city, including on the New Haven Green and on all of Orange Street, providing large areas with wi-fi accessibility to the company’s subscribers, he said.
“Our philosophy has always been that companies who want to profit from invention and service provision should go ahead and spend the money and see how it works out,” Sherwin said.
The city of Hartford recently issued a request for full wireless coverage free of charge to both the city and its residents, Sherwin said.
But officials in New Haven government said such a request is far-fetched, and said they may instead ask ISPs to offer reduced subscription rates for low income residents.
“The taxpayers would be looking at a subscription price that would be very reasonable, and our goal is for this to be an open system,” O’Keefe said.
Both O’Keefe and Slap said the city cannot afford to pay for the entire service, though city government will be the plan’s principle subscriber.
The end product may be similar to that pursued by the city of Portland, Ore.,, which also consulted with Civitium in the early stages of the initiative. Portland is a few months ahead of New Haven and has already asked for ISPs to submit their subscription proposals.
Rashid Ahmed, senior project coordinator of the Portland Development Commission, said that Portland has requested coverage from a private service that may also provide certain sites free of charge or offer low income segments of the population a reduced subscription rate.
— Staff Reporter Tyler Hill contributed to this report.