Where's my free internet? That's what a number of downtown Charleston residents are asking. Last year the city approved a proposal from WidespreadAccess of Mt. Pleasant and partner Evening Post Publishing Co. to install a wireless internet "cloud" over the peninsula. The initiative, dubbed "The Radius," promised free, high-speed access to the majority of the downtown population by the beginning of 2006. Promotional materials made much of the notion that The Radius would provide a fast-track to the information superhighway for low-income families and those who are now without internet access.
It's a laudable public service project, but to date, WidespreadAccess has been able to secure connections for less than 40 percent of the peninsula, just half of the targeted percentage and up only 10 percent from the official launch of the system March 31. WidespreadAccess president Sam Staley says that the project is still in "beta phase," and he's essentially ceased projecting dates for the its estimated completion.
Patchy service is partially responsible for the lack of progress being made on extending the network's coverage. Resources have been diverted from the expansion of the system toward efforts to improve the quality of service in areas that are already under The Radius umbrella. Staley says that Widespread Access is "trying to fill out, as best we can," to ensure that "areas that have it, have good service."
Staley says another problem is an "overwhelming amount of users" — which turns out to be just 385 people, the number of users who've registered in the five weeks since the system's launch. They expect at least that many to sign up in the second month — though Staley says they projected only 100 registrants per month to begin with. (Charleston's total population is 115,000.)
Another roadblock Staley notes is Charleston's Design Review Board, which is responsible for all zoning administration, urban design, and historic preservation in Charleston proper. Staley says that a number of access towers were erected that later had to be removed because the Design Review Board felt their visible intrusion on the peninsular cityscape was too great. This meant re-engineering their equipment and imbedding the hardware into existing electrical poles throughout the peninsula.
In a test run of the public project, this City Paper staffer discovered that coverage doesn't yet extend to high-traffic areas such as Marion Square Park, a stone's throw from WidespreadAccess's Gaillard Auditorium access tower. In locations where The Radius could be used, service was spotty at best, extremely slow, and nonexistent if the computer wasn't perfectly oriented for reception.
A few weeks ago, WidespreadAccess was promising pomp and circumstance with the official launching of the service this spring, but now seems to have taken those plans off the table in light of continuing troubles with the network. A "soft launch" of the project occurred March 31, and at this time no further official events are planned.
Although it's gratifying to see wireless internet service finally being acknowledged by both public and private sectors as a public utility, installing a citywide wifi system is no easy task. Over 120 cities internationally have, or are in the process of, acquiring free wireless internet networks for their residents. Almost all of these cities have reported complications, the most common being post-launch performance. The only sure solution to this problem seems to be regular, system-wide upgrades.
Unfortunately, there is no pill for what ails The Radius at the moment.