A little over a year ago in these pages, for our Best of Charleston 2005 issue, I wrote about the bitter pill of having to cough up good green to private, for-profit corporations for something that by all rights oughta be a municipal public service.
"Communities across America are embracing the notion, by now obvious, that the ridiculously simple technology underlying wireless internet protocol has essentially turned it into a public utility," I wrote. "Communities all over are providing wireless internet service, often in the form of city-blanketing wifi 'clouds,' as a free public service. So why is the Charleston Chamber of Commerce still touting its wifi ThinkSpots initiative — a couple of dozen retail establishments where you can shell out $8 a day for wireless access — as a convenience to anyone but Aerolina, the local ISP who landed the exclusive service contract? Wifi should be free. Period."
In light of the expected launch in the next week or so of just such a free wireless cloud in Charleston, it's nice to see I wasn't far off the mark — though in retrospect, "ridiculously simple" was probably an oversimplification of the technology involved, given that local high-speed wireless ISP WidespreadAccess has been bumping back the launch of its peninsula-spanning network since September of last year. WidespreadAccess president Sam Staley says most of the delay has been due to issues not with the technology but with logistics: getting towers and other access points situated, for example, and dealing with the minutiae of aesthetics and the demands of the Board of Architectural Review.
It's worth noting, too, that the new open-access wireless network isn't a municipally-run service at all. It's a private partnership between WidespreadAccess and Evening Post Publishing, owner of The Post and Courier and quite a few other media entities. (Evening Post plans to make back its portion of the half-million-dollar investment by offering newspaper subscriptions to users and selling online ads. WidespreadAccess will offer for-pay subscription packages with faster access and more bells and whistles.)
With an actual full-out launch of the service still four to six weeks away, Staley says his company has decided to move forward with previously stated plans for a soft launch at the end of March. By next week the network (which does in fact have a name — Staley asked me to keep my yap shut about it until the official launch) should have several hot operational zones on the peninsula accessible to laptop and other mobile access users. Many sites show connectivity right now, he says — including many outdoor sites like Marion Square and area parks — but are password-protected until the switch is thrown in a week or so.
"We'll eventually have a big launch event with the media and the mayor's office, " Staley says, "but not for another four to six weeks."
In the meantime, the Chamber and Aerolina are viewing the pending launch of the free internet cloud as a overall positive.
Pennie Bingham is the director of the Chamber program that birthed ThinkSpots with Aerolina two years ago. "We were pleased to introduce the wifi initiative to the region. We believe in it strongly," she says. "And if it can be free, that's great. From our standpoint, whatever works for the marketplace is what's best. Free is good."
Aerolina, for its part, seems equally copacetic. Co-owner Scott Adams says he's never made money on the program and would himself prefer operating free hotspots to charging for access.
"It hasn't been free in the past because it costs money to run and maintain and support. But we've always agreed that ideally it would be free. If the cloud quality and coverage is good as they say it will be, the existing ThinkSpot locations will probably be moved elsewhere to locations where the cloud doesn't cover."
Also, Adams says, Aerolina would probably repurpose ThinkSpots by seeking sponsorships to make the sites free. Atlanta Bread Company in Mt. Pleasant is going free, he notes: customers love the access, so the restaurant's agreed to pick up maintenance costs.
"If the cloud does what everyone is hoping it will do, we see that as a very good thing."