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City Studies Internet Access for All Residents

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday August 08, 2006

Berkeley city officials, residents, and local independent wireless providers continue the search for the perfect Internet system that will provide city-wide Internet access to people who live, work, or recreate in Berkeley. 

“We are still in the investigative process,” said Chris Mead, director of Information Technology for the City of Berkeley. “The council wants some more information on the possibilities and requirements for a Berkeley citywide wireless (“Wi-Fi”) Internet System. One of the reasons why we are looking so closely at the proposal submitted by the city is that we are also considering options such as fiber optics.” 

Wi-Fi uses unregulated bands of the electromagnetic spectrum whereas information passes with the help of light through a fiber optic cable. Although more expensive than the Wi-Fi system (which would cost the city somewhere between $2-$5 million), fiber optics is considered to be a lot faster, transmitting up to 1GB per second. 

“Fiber optics is definitely faster, but it would also cost the city up to tens of millions of dollars to set it up. There would also be a lot of work involved in setting up the fiber network and running them through all the houses. It will be a major construction process. On the other hand, Wi-Fi is a lot easier to install and will certainly stimulate the economy while closing the digital divide. The idea is to look carefully into all the possible options and then report back. Only then can we send out a RFP at which point both local and national service providers can submit their proposals. We will be selecting the one which meets our requirements the best. For this we have to keep in mind the cost to the city, security, long-term probability and the speed of the service,” Mead said. 

Mead also added that the city was looking at partnering with a public entity, such as UC Berkeley, to provide free Internet access to the city. Currently, the goal is to launch a city-wide pilot program encompassing the downtown area. 

UC currently has the only large-scale Wi-Fi infrastructure in Berkeley in the form of the AirBears network which offers a unified wireless local area network that can be used by students and faculty in most of the major buildings on campus.  

However, as Mead puts it, security becomes a major factor in any free wireless network. “The network has to be secure in cases of business or government work. Also, users will not be able to download anything illegally from the Internet. There will be a specific set of terms and conditions that users will need to accept before they can log on to this network,” 

Tom Hunt, a Berkeley resident and advisor to the City’s IT Department, is in favor of fiber optics. “It’s a hundred or even a thousand times as fast as Wi-Fi,” he said. “There is currently a project in Canada called CANARIE in which fiber optics is being used to provide Internet service to the public. It comes at a cost of $1000/$1500 per household but it amounts to only $17.42 per month over a period of ten years. However, Wi-Fi also provides a short-term probability if the city is able to set up a periodic contract with a suitable service provider that will not hamper future upgrades to a faster and new technology, such as a wireless mesh system that could come along in the next five to six years,” he said.  

Eric Dynamic, CTO, UC Telecommunications Company, echoed Hunt’s thoughts on fiber optics. “It uses one-wire service to provide all common data services: voice (phone), data (Internet), TV, and is permanent, faster and more capable than any other technology. It is also virtually maintenance free and provides for “net neutrality”—that is the ability to select from a wide range of vendors. Also there are no concerns for EM radiation hazards in this case,” 

According to councilmember Linda Maio, who requested a city report on the costs and benefits of a wireless system last August along with councilmembers Laurie Capitelli, Darryl Moore, and Max Anderson, there are presently two issues with respect to Wi-Fi.  

“It is certainly attractive to have a city which has one of the world’s premier institutions to have free wireless anywhere in the city, at least in the core areas. However our past experience with cell phone antennas placed in the city has not been too good. Community members have had several concerns about transmissions and what effect they might have on our health. Technology is certainly a wonderful thing but there definitely are concerns about it in the modern world.” 

Maio added that at the moment the idea was just a proposal and it could take anywhere up to a year to even get it to the agenda stage. “We want to press ahead with the idea and see how it goes but we haven’t asked for a specific schedule yet. It’s too early to set dates for something that is still in the ‘looking into’ stage,” she said. 



This story begins a collaboration between the Berkeley Daily Planet and the Kitchen Democracy polling organization. If you’d like to express your opinion on this topic, go to on the Internet.