Shortcuts to broadband

The Florida city of Jacksonville is neither small nor underserved by high-bandwidth

telecommunications. It has the 14th-largest deepwater port in the country

and boasts state-of-the-art fiber-optic connections for most of its downtown


What it does lack is any way of getting cheap broadband access to poorer

neighborhoods and out-of-the-way economic development zones.

"The digital divide is the big issue driving this right now," said Libby

Clapp, Jacksonville's chief information officer. "Also, technologies are

changing so much and so fast, and buildings are so expensive to wire. What

solutions fit these cost and other constraints is what counts now."

One possible answer, which Jacksonville hopes to pilot during the next

year, involves setting up wireless zones across the region based on the

802.11b wireless local-area network standard, or Wi-Fi, as the principal

broadband connection. Anyone within a defined Wireless Internet Zone (WIZ)

created using 802.11b connections can access the Internet at speeds of up

to 11 megabits/sec.

The city's first WIZ has been running since late last year as a technology

proof-of-concept at Jacksonville Landing, a retail, restaurant and amusement

center located on Jacksonville's downtown riverfront. Anyone with an appropriately

equipped laptop or handheld computer can access the Internet within that


"It's a [small-solution] way of providing broadband access," said James

Higbe, president of Connexsys, a Jacksonville-based wireless equipment and

network provider. "It will enable us to get to around 80 percent of the

people in areas that want this access."

And it's certainly cost-effective, according to Drew Thoeni, president

and principal of inc.well LLC, a Jacksonville-based "business and idea incubator"

that took a leading role in developing the WIZ concept. A WIZ can be installed

for about an eighth of the price of a comparable wired solution, he said.

Thoeni's company came up with the original idea of a WIZ and was instrumental

in pulling together the public/private partnership whose members developed

"in-kind" services to help develop the concept. Access at Jacksonville Landing

is provided for free, but a small fee might be charged for access in other


If the proof-of-concept is rated a success, as it is expected to be,

the city will authorize several larger pilots. The highest priority will

be for a WIZ to serve a community centers in a designated "intensive-care

neighborhoods." These are areas that have nothing in the way of information

technology, Clapp said, and the hardest part has been getting Internet connectivity

to them.

Another pilot, which is not yet being pursued as strongly, is for a

WIZ to be installed in an economic development area. Small and medium-size

businesses are the target there, Clapp said. If companies can be enticed

to move into an area with the promise of ready broadband Internet access,

the investment will pay for itself through subsequent workforce development.

"Every city has been asking where they are on these [digital divide]

issues, and how they can address them," Clapp said. "We are looking [with

the WIZ] to build a business and financial model that will provide us with

an answer."

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be

reached at [email protected]

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.


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