Free the Internet

Here's another chance for the town of Chapel Hill to catch up to Carrboro: free wireless Internet downtown.

It seems to have been a resounding success for Carrboro. Some businesses might worry about dozens of folks setting up their laptops for hours while only buying a pastry and coffee, but WSM has got plenty of space on the lawn, and more importantly having free wifi just adds to their role as the community hub. That attracts customers that aren't even using the wireless.

But Chapel Hill has a new angle on this. They are discussing covering the downtown neighborhoods like Northside where some residents can't afford high-speed Internet access.

Across the town line in Carrboro, officials decided last year to put a few thousand dollars into expanding the wireless network in the downtown area, enabling people to connect -- for free -- to the Internet with their laptop computers equipped with wireless cards.

In Chapel Hill, members of the town's Technology Committee are among those who see the potential that Carrboro saw -- giving customers another reason to spend time in coffee shops and restaurants.

... For example, if the town were to establish a good network in downtown, it wouldn't take much effort and money to expand it further to serve neighborhoods like Pine Knolls and Northside, he said.

The board of the Chapel Hill Downtown Economic Development Corporation wants to explore the wireless possibilities downtown as well. That board has had some initial discussions about the idea.
- Chapel Hill Herald, 6/26/05

Some may argue that if households can't afford Internet access they also can't afford computers, but free access still brings people one step closer and will go a long way to encourage programs to donate lightly used computers to families that can use them. I think it would be a great idea to make a mesh network spanning all the way from the Franklin Street Post office and Chapel Hill Town Hall (already wireless) to Carrboro's Century Center and Town Hall.



I have a personal perspective on this. I grew up in a little coal mining town in Pennsylvania, 500 people. We went to a regional school, which had kids from 15 towns of about the same size. Needless to say our school was not a top performer, when I got to college I had to ask what AP meant and when I was told it was Advanced Placement I had to ask what that meant.
The point?
My old school got a grant to make the entire district wireless, all of it. Because of this my parents, my sister, my neice, my relatives "out on the ridge" all have internet access now.

So, while there are probably some people in Chapel Hill without the finances to buy a computer, I think a wireless city would bring more lower-middle and upper-lower citizens online. This would also level the playing field for kids who can't afford a used computer AND good internet access.

The schools and the Town (through a limited program at the Hargraves Center) already have programs in place to distribute computers into homes. In addition, this year the Town has a number of computers that could be "recycled" into the community to cover needs not met by these other programs. Also, there's plenty of very useable equipment discarded by companies every year that is very performant when running OSS tools (Linux, Firefox, etc.) but an adequate system of matching donor to donee is not in place. Hopefully Brian Russell will weigh in on this point. Finally, I was up at the Eubanks recycling center two days ago and there was a heap of discarded computers - I imagine a number of them had functional, recyclable, components that could be redeployed into the community.

We'd better hurry!

"The Supreme Court handed down two rulings today that will have a tremendous impact on the future of the Internet. The Brand X decision will badly weaken the foundation of the Internet as an open marketplace for new ideas, competitive services, and the free flow of information.....The 6-to-3 decision in the Brand X case will likely change the face of the Internet as we know it. The Court ruled that the FCC's interpretation of the Communications Act was lawful, upholding the agency's long-contested decision to exempt cable modem service from the common carrier regulations that apply to its major competitor, the telephone companies.

The Brand X decision is not only absurd on its face, it is an insult to the American ideals of competitive markets, equal opportunity, and the free flow of information. This short-sighted decision to eliminate common carrier requirements on broadband networks essentially grants the incumbent cable giants the prerogative to stifle all competitive access to their wires. If the telephone companies receive similar exemptions — as is expected — the cozy duopoly of cable and DSL that controls more than 95 percent of the broadband market will be entrenched for a generation. There will be no competitive broadband carriers. There will be no independent ISPs. The thriving new market for Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) may be badly destabilized. The owners of the wires will likely determine what content is and is not appropriate to travel over their networks."

I think it's an excellent idea for Chapel Hill to set up a wireless network. It is absolutely key to increasing literacy, workforce development, and promoting democracy. Wired computer labs help but do not go far enough. Every person should have access to the Internet. The more the Town can do to make this a reality the better chances it's citizens have of living happier and healthier lives.


adequate system of matching donor to donee is not in place

Reuse is an excellent concept for increasing access to computer hardware and software. But in reality it's very complicated. Here's part of the reason why.

Local nonprofit organizations that accept used computer hardware from towns, corporations, and individuals refurbish the hardware and give it back to other *organizations*. They don't have the time, money, and expertise to managing donations to thousands of people in need. I am not aware of an organization that accepts computers, refurbishes them, and gives them directly to INDIVIDUALS. The responsibility to manage donations to people usually falls upon nonprofits and schools who know communities and the people in them intimately. This circuitous route with which technology is donated appears to happen for several reasons. Here are a few:
1) They can write the hardware expense off on their taxes

2) They see PR opportunities in donations to nonprofits and communities.

3) Computer hardware's net worth depreciates quickly (like a new car)

4) They care about the communities around them

5) They don't want to or can't handle the serious work in managing donations to individuals. Not to mention the potential legal issues.

6) There is substantial cost to legally disposing computer hardware. (There're lots of toxic materials in computer hardware that is expensive to recycle. Thus dumping fees are high.)

When an organization makes a large donation of computer equipment they're also inadvertently passing on a huge potential maintenance and education cost. Unfortunately many people obtaining computer equipment don't realize what they are getting into. Yet the cost of using, maintaining, and integrating computer technology is much more than the cost of the hardware and software. Because of the quick deprecation of computer hardware it is often CHEAPER in a fiscal year to buy new equipment that is reliable rather than pay high salary costs to those who can maintain, integrate, and repair used hardware. But this option requires a large upfront budget. Many groups with out this money accept free equipment and decide to just deal with the other expenses when they arrive. This strategy can lead to failure or a substandard success in computers use.

Now because I dropped this bit of hard reality doesn't mean I am against nonprofits and individuals accepting used computer hardware donations. FAR FROM IT. Matter of fact I am very passionate about computer reuse SUCCEEDING. The fact is many people will not have access now or in the future if we do not reuse computer hardware. I just share this info so those who are planning on making and accepting donations realize what they are getting into.

To successfully integrate computes into your program you need to have a plan. Here are a *few* things that must be planned for:
Integration: How are the computers going to be used by people? How will people know how to use them successfully?

Education: What are your computer users skill levels? How will you help people learn?

Construction: How will you build your computer labs? How will they access the Internet?

Maintenance: How will you maintain your computers and the network they exist on?

People: Most Important - What do the people want? What do they need? How would they like to use computer technology? What would most benefit them now? How will they successfully use computers?

If anyone has a computer to donate (less than 5 years old with enough memory to run Windows 2000), see:
Please be sure to take a monitor, keyboard, and mouse in addition to the CPU.

The Triangle United Way is a certified Microsoft refurbisher and will wipe the hard drive clean (protecting the privacy of your files), install MS 2000 for $10, and load Open Office and a couple of other OS applications. I *think* you can specify which nonprofit you want to receive the equipment once it has been refurbished. Their program has been on hold for a while due to a shortage of donations. There's plenty of known need.

The T4T donation program is supposed to be starting up again very soon, if it hasn't already; I think the holdup was with getting W2K licenses from Microsoft, not hardware. Any nonprofit can apply to receive donated equipment from them, and they're nice folks, too.


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