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Lancaster City Wi-Fi project draws a lot of opinions

Robert Beiler

Associate Opinion Editor

 

Internet usage has surged over the past decade. Every day more and more services require it. Some municipalities are even working to make the internet freely available.

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This is what the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania is setting out to do. In February of 2015, Mayor Rick Gray held a press conference to announce the city’s plan to build out a fiber optic internet infrastructure. This network will be used for a combination of free public wi-fi hotspots, home internet, and city services.

The project seemingly not well known, despite being announced over 18 months ago. However, response appears to be almost universal support across various backgrounds and populations.

Mujtaba “Mash” Mahmood, owner of Route 66 diner on North Prince St, is very optimistic about the project. “It’s a great opportunity for people to get affordable internet,” he said, “It will expose people to a lot of information and educate them.”

The city will be investing $500,000 in the project in a partnership with MAW Communications based in Reading, Pa. This will involve laying down over 1000 strands of fiber optic cable. MAW has operated for the past 19 years and the company description on its website list it as “one of the oldest Competitive Exchange Carriers in existence.” The partnership with Lancaster will be both a first for MAW and the first in Pennsylvania.

Pricing for the service was released on August 10, 2016. Like Comcast’s system, there are multiple tiers. Prices start at $34.95 and extend up to $89.99. The major factor that will set this network apart is the speeds. Both Comcast and the city network offer 150Mbps download speeds, but at significantly different prices. Comcast’s at $82.99 and Lancaster at $49.99. Comcast’s also only offers a fraction of that speed for uploading. MAW’s service meanwhile claims they will offer “symmetrical” speeds, meaning the same for both uploading and downloading.

The city proposed in one of its initial statements that they will easy recoup the costs of the investment. These include the ability to remote monitor the city’s water system. Instead of having to send workers out on routine checks every few months, they will be able to check multiple times per day. They estimate that this alone will save between $130,000 and $200,000 a year. This will presumably will allow them to catch issues before they become bigger problems.

A secure, private network will also be available for police use to transmit reports and access databases. The city also estimates the network will save up to $110,000 a year by not having to pay outside vendors for internet access to operate city systems.

The city’s documents on the matter claim that this will in the longer term free up money to work on the city’s aging infrastructure. The Lancaster Safety Coalition will also be able to use the network to access all cameras at once, reducing their infrastructure needs.

Seeing all of this as a good move, the city ended ending their release: “We can say with confidence that Lancaster’s Municipal Broadband Network will provide residents, visitors, and business owners with access to the fastest, lowest cost, most secure and most reliable Broadband connectivity available anywhere, today, tomorrow and well into the future.”

 

The city administration also hopes this will attract new potential businesses and residents. Mayor Rick Grey told Keystone Crossroads that this is a major motivation. “You go into any coffee bar,” he said, “everybody has an iPad, has a computer, has an iPhone – they’re all on it. And those are the people we want to attract: young people, entrepreneurial people.”

Binns Park, near the city government center, was the first space to receive one of the Wi-Fi hotspots. It launched as a test of the program in July 2016.

One of the few concerns cited about the project would be the ways in which low income residents could gain access. Melody Williams, owner of Winding Way Bookstore on Gallery Row, is certainly interested.

“I’m all for it, especially if it expands to people who are low income,” Williams said. She currently uses Comcast’s Xfinity internet hotspots, but hasn’t found them to be reliable. The hotspots, which cost roughly $54 a month, allow her to use internet near her apartment and her store, which are crucial for ordering inventory.

While Williams pays for the passes, she doesn’t get the level of service offered to traditional customers. This can include being kicked off the service entirely during high volumes of traffic.

This isn’t the first-time Williams has looked for a workaround to get internet. She previously used a USB cellular connection. When this grew to be too expensive, she split internet costs with another business owner until that was no longer an option.

Williams also worried the $250 fee to have internet service lines run into resident’s homes and businesses could be a deterrent from people joining. While the monthly plan prices may be much cheaper than those from Comcast or Verizon, it may not be easy for lower income residents to pull together that much money.

A recent study from the Federal Reserve Board showed that nearly half of Americans would struggle to gather up $400 for an emergency. MAW’s website lists a phone number for low income residents to call, but does not specify the types of assistance they will offer. Williams hopes that whatever money is saved with the new infrastructure will goes towards something useful and help with affordable housing costs.

According to LNP, nearly 1000 residents had signed up as of September 2016, beyond the expected demand. Of those who applied, 81% listed Comcast as their current provider.

Lancaster also looks to succeed where others have not. The failure of previous networks in other cities came from the type of service being used, Lancaster public works director Charlotte Katzenmoyer told Keystone Crossroads. While cities like Philadelphia attempted to use cellular based wireless systems to power their network, MAW’s fiber optic setup will be able to handle a much heavier burden.

Rachel Harber may not live in Lancaster, but she does work in it. She sees the benefits of such a project. At the same time, she worries about impacts on business. The Rabbit and the Dragonfly café offers free Wi-Fi to customers, which can sometimes be an incentive for some to stop in when they may otherwise not. The city’s free public Wi-Fi takes away that competitive advantage.

Clayton Stief who also work at the same café, is all in on the project. “Wi-Fi and internet access is a resource. It’s like water and electricity.” He cites it as becoming increasingly crucial for many people and blasted companies like Comcast for their costs. “I’m just fortunate enough to be able to afford it,” he said. At home, he uses it to learn coding. “Without Wi-Fi, I wouldn’t be able to just quick reference things and look things up, or write any kind of coding.”

But Stief does have some concerns. Previously living in a halfway house, they had their internet shut down due to others downloading inappropriate materials. He worries about others abusing the public hotspots similarly. He believes that there should be a filter in place, but that the project is the right move for the city. “There have been points in my life where I didn’t have internet access,” he said, “and I needed to find a job to gain said internet access.” He sees this as another way to grow the pool of applicants for jobs.

While the city was originally shooting for a larger scale rollout to begin in late 2016, delays and additional services added to the network (such as the safety coalition cameras) have delayed the launch back to 2017. It is unknown if this is currently on track. When reached to for comment multiple times, city officials failed to respond.