Downtown Wi-Fi plan hits City Council firewall

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A bid to bring wireless, outdoor Internet access Downtown ran into static before City Council yesterday, when members asked that the deal be reworked.

Just three council members voted for a proposal to allow the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and its contractor, US Wireless Online, to post Wi-Fi antennae on 53 city light posts Downtown, around PNC Park, and near Mellon Arena. Three other council members abstained, and three were not present.

Council may vote on the proposal on Tuesday.

The partnership and Mayor Bob O'Connor want Downtown users to get two hours of free Wi-Fi service a day, starting in time for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in July.

Councilman Leonard Bodack, who abstained, said he wants the proposed seven-year deal to be shorter, so the city can re-evaluate it based on Wi-Fi contracts in other cities.

"I don't want to see us sign a long-term deal leaving money on the table," he said.

Councilman William Peduto, a yes vote, said he would not support the proposal Tuesday unless it is changed.

The city, which spends nothing and gets nothing under the current deal, should receive $40 per pole per month, he said. That fee could be waived if providers served low-income neighborhoods. There should be stronger guarantees that other Wi-Fi providers can also operate Downtown, he said.

Rodney Akers, deputy director of city information systems, wasn't able to say whether such conditions could be met.

Downtown Partnership CEO Michael Edwards said he would talk with US Wireless about council's concerns. He said it might not be possible to shorten the term of the deal or add pole fees at this late date.

Tom Dauer, managing principal of competing networking firm Electronic Properties, said US Wireless was getting a "sweetheart deal" that wouldn't be fair to competitors.

Under the Downtown Partnership's proposal, foundation grants would fund the installation of the antennae. US Wireless would make money by charging for upgraded service and for use beyond two hours a day.

EarthLink Inc. has said it would install a citywide Wi-Fi network without city or foundation aid. It would make money by charging for enhanced service.


Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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