Shortcuts to broadband
- By Brian Robinson
- Feb 10, 2002
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
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
Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be
reached at [email protected]
Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.