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Last year’s Best Of was the first time we included a category for Best Wi-Fi Spot, and, to our surprise, Starbucks waltzed away with the prize. We found this puzzling, mostly because at Starbucks, wireless internet access is — how to put this diplomatically — really, really goddamned expensive. Walk into any one of the chain’s locations, pull out your laptop, and you’ll quickly find yourself being asked to fork over a chunk of change to T-Mobile, a national wireless provider, for the privilege of getting on the web or checking your e-mail. To us, the notion of paying for wi-fi makes about as much sense as supporting a music distribution system that prices CDs at $18. It’s inherently effed up.
So this year we decided to level the playing field a little. We changed the category slightly to Best Free Wi-Fi. Incredibly, Starbucks still won. Are you people AWARE that you can’t get free wireless internet at Starbucks?! There are a hundred places around town where you can log on for bupkis, but our readers would evidently prefer to pay for access. It’s times like this that we really question the wisdom of giving this paper away for free. Maybe you’d all rather pay for it.
In any event, Kudu Coffee on King Street was the second most popular vote for wi-fi — and they do in fact provide free access. But all of this raises an interesting point. By this time last year, this whole subject was supposed to have been moot. In March 2005, the City of Charleston announced that a Mt. Pleasant-based ISP called Widespread Access had partnered with Evening Post Publishing Co., which owns The Post and Courier, to offer free wireless internet service throughout the peninsula. They planned to roll out a city-covering wi-fi cloud called The Radius in November of 2005. Then it was bumped to January 2006, then March … and then they stopped talking about time frames all together.
Now, almost two years after the initial announcement, The Radius is a complete nonstarter. To call it a disaster would be an insult to disasters. The system, for what it’s worth, is operational, but you wouldn’t know it. If you open up a laptop downtown, you’re unlikely to see the signal, and if by some chance you do, it’ll have all the strength of a wet Kleenex. You’re more likely to get online using D-Link0383645 or Linksys34566 or whatever the guy in the upstairs apartment is broadcasting around the block with his open network than you are with The Radius.
To be fair, Widespread Access and Evening Post did sink almost half a million of their own dollars into the project, and they did so with the best of intentions. The plan was to undercut big ISPs like Comcast, Bellsouth, and Knology by offering limited-rate, free access anywhere on the peninsula, and then spreading to outlying areas once the kinks were ironed out. There was a business model of sorts — users wanting top end broadband data speeds could pay for premium accounts, and all traffic would be routed through The Post and Courier‘s website, Charleston.net, which would provide both content and advertising revenue. They even trotted out the old trope about using the system to close the “digital divide” by making the ‘net available to low-income households — no doubt a big selling point with the City of Charleston, which was bonkers for the idea.
But project coordinators didn’t count on the technical and logistical difficulties of implementing their plan, which called for an array of antennas around the city. The Board of Architectural Review laughed in their faces over some of the proposed antenna sites, forcing a scramble for substitute locations. And Widespread Access had trouble spreading the broadband signal through downtown’s densely developed neighborhoods.
The Post and Courier — after looking the other way and refusing to cover the boondoggle for months — finally, grudgingly, reported in Jan. that Widespread Access is seeking subcontractors to help on the project and Evening Post is “evaluating its options.” The only good news is that all the money pumped into the project to date is private; Charleston taxpayers have, for the time being, been spared the ignominy of being accessories to the fiasco. As a last-ditch effort to make lemonade out of the situation, the City’s decided to bring in a pair of outside technology companies, Minneapolis-based U.S. Internet Corp. and Atlanta-based Charys Holding Co. Inc., to act as consultants on the debacle and offer an opinion on whether the project can be salvaged.
In the meantime, word is trickling in from Columbia that a pair of S.C. legislators are hoping to create a wireless cloud over the entire state. House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Greenville Rep. Dwight Loftis introduced a resolution in February that creates the South Carolina Wireless Technology and Communications Commission “for the purpose of implementing a statewide wireless broadband network,” according to a press release.
They might want to speak to the folks at Widespread Access first. In the meantime, we recommend a seat at Kudu.