Wisconsin Towns Go Wireless

Published May 1, 2009

A consortium of seven municipal organizations in the Fox Valley region of Wisconsin has joined forces to build and operate a high-speed wireless broadband network.

The consortium, dubbed the Interactive Network for the Fox Cities (INFOCIS), has chosen San Diego-based NetLogix to design and organize the network, which will initially be used by city workers for tasks such as meter reading and police record checks.

Depending on the success of the initial phase, area planners will extend the network into additional areas of northeastern Wisconsin.

Tempering Expectations

Sascha Meinrath, research director for the wireless future program at the Washington, DC-based New America Foundation, warned taxpayers to be on alert for a waste of public funds.

“Taxpayers, as investors in such projects, have a right to receive a decent return on their investment,” Meinrath said. “When cities sign contracts with private firms [and] do not have mechanisms for holding those firms accountable for any failures to fulfill their contract obligations, then they can be left with a relatively meaningless contract.

“In terms of broadband services, I fear that some municipalities were drawn in by the offer of a ‘free lunch,'” Meinrath added.

Defending the Network

Municipal wi-fi schemes have failed all across the country—from big cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco to smaller towns like Centerville, Utah and Naperville, Illinois.

But Eric DaVersa, vice president for business development for NetLogix, says the Fox Valley plan will not fail.

“The technology failures of the past were directly related to poorly architected or poorly engineered networks,” DaVersa said. “That won’t be a problem here. This is for government use only and is a pilot network on a small scale.”

Focused on City Services

Scott Liske, Appleton’s director of information technology, likewise said his city’s project differs from those that have failed in the past.

“Most other failed projects I am aware of were to provide public wi-fi based on various unproven business models,” Liske said. “There was more of a ‘build it and they will come’ approach to those.

“Our primary goal is to improve efficiency of our [city] operations,” Liske added. “And while some degree of public access may result, it is not our primary focus and not part of any funding requirement.”

Resisting Project Creep

Meinrath expressed approval of the Wisconsin project being limited to public services, but he warns against the temptation to extend it to wider public use free of charge.

“Many of the leading so-called municipal wireless failures have failed because the private industries that were running the endeavors did not have any meaningful accountability to the communities they were serving,” Meinrath said. “A true public-private partnership holds both sides responsible for the successful implementation of a network.”

Tabassum Rahmani ([email protected]) writes from Dublin, California.