Friday, June 8, 2007

Any which way for WiFi?

Ketchum City Council member Terry Tracy stopped the council in its tracks Monday when she demanded that the city stick to its budget.

Tracy said she was shocked to find funding resolutions totaling nearly $100,000 to install and operate a citywide wireless Internet access system (WiFi) as action items on the city's agenda.

Tracy balked and said the council had asked for more research on the project—not for funding proposals.

Tracy demanded that supporters of the proposal, which include Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall, tell her what items in the current budget should be cut to make room for the project.

She got silence.

She could as well have asked supporters to decide what future items they wish to cut because a WiFi system will require ongoing service and maintenance that will cost $72,000 or more every year, which may include a full-time technician.

It's not an earth-shaking amount of money—but it adds up over time. In a city that struggles to pay employees, lacks significant stocks of workforce housing and invites pedestrians to stroll non-existent or dangerous sidewalks—in the dark—a total of $720,000 over 10 years could make a real difference.

Employee raises, housing, sidewalks and streetlights are not sexy public works projects like WiFi. WiFi reeks of cool.

But Tracy is right. WiFi should be treated like any public works project. Instead of rushing to fund it because it is cool and sexy, the City Council should first establish the need for it. Then it should decide of all the needed public works projects if WiFi is a "must have" or just a "nice to have."

Before funding WiFi, the city should draft a detailed business plan: Determine the number of potential customers and establish a fee base from which revenues may be calculated. It should document any cost shifts from the city that could help support it.

To date, the city has seen only undocumented assumptions, bright forecasts and speculation.

Further, the mayor and some council members have accepted as a given that it is prudent for the city to engage in competition with two existing private Internet access providers, Cox and Qwest. That assumption needs a lot more explanation.

The city has not explored the successes or failure of other cities that have installed WiFi systems. Such information would be useful before the council makes a decision because reports are mixed.

WiFi shouldn't be funded just any which way. Tracy was wise to slam on the brakes to give the council time to make a well-informed and well-reasoned decision.

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