Pennsylvania Town Sets Up Wi-Fi for City Business

Published December 28, 2009

Altoona, Pennsylvania has created a citywide wi-fi service, but unlike scores of such schemes that have failed in recent years, Altoona’s will be only for city use and will not attempt to provide free service to the public.

The wireless broadband system, set up in November, will be used by local police and fire departments and city employees serving the residents of the city of nearly 50,000 people approximately 100 miles east of Pittsburgh.

The Altoona Water Authority will be allowed to map water and sewer lines and have access to specific databases. The police department will access JNET, the Pennsylvania Justice Network, mapping applications and reports, as will the fire department with its own mapping and inspection data.

Follow the Money
Altoona signed a contract with York, Pennsylvania-based BIG Wireless for the system using Motorola technology. Paul Soutar, investigative reporter for the Kansas Policy Institute and editor of, advised Altoona residents to monitor the details of the system closely.

“When government entities enter into private contracts or agreements, those contracts need to be completely transparent for citizens to be sure what their taxes are being used on,” Soutar said. “In corporate welfare between a private entity and government, they are quite often unwritten preferential agreements, which puts the government in the position of favoring one business over another and giving a competitive advantage to one business over another.

“Citizens need to be aware of the exact language of that contract,” he added.

Public Wi-Fi Failures
Starting in about 2005, scores of municipalities of all sizes across the country began to offer residents free wi-fi service. The idea was that a private provider would enjoy the fruits of an exclusive contract with the city and both sides would recoup their investments by selling advertising on the network.

Few muni wi-fi operations, however, lasted long. Cities as large as Philadelphia and San Francisco and as small as Tremonton, Utah and Naperville, Illinois found themselves stuck holding the bag when their private-sector partners bailed. Taxpayers lost their investment.

Eric Montarti, senior policy analyst at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy in Pittsburgh, said it might not be a bad idea for Altoona eventually to open its wi-fi network to public use, as long as it isn’t subsidized by taxpayers.

“Pittsburgh had something similar ten years ago,” Montarti said. “When they negotiated [a deal for a wi-fi network], the city extracted city goods out of the provider. Public use might be acceptable if there’s going to be a wireless network, but it should be available to everybody who wanted to pay for the service, and not just the city itself,” said.

Krystle Russin
([email protected]) writes from Texas.