Cedar Rapids seeks to partner with private sector to build a city Wi-Fi system

City hopes to expand from 8 Wi-Fi transmitters to 70 in 2014

City officials will seek proposals from Internet providers in January 2014 with an eye to creating a public-private partnership to build a Wi-Fi network in the city.

Dominic Roberts, the city’s chief information officer, said the city’s plan is for the Wi-Fi network to start downtown in 2014 and expand from there.

One day, the system may stretch throughout the city, he said.

Roberts said the city and Internet provider ImOn Communications LLC have joined together in the last six to 12 months to build a small Wi-Fi system between First Avenue East and Second Avenue SE and Second and Third streets SE in the downtown to test and prove that the Wi-Fi concept will work.

The city now hopes to expand from 8 Wi-Fi transmitters to 70 in 2014, which will expand the system to cover an area from the Cedar River to Eighth Street SE and from First Avenue East to Eighth Avenue SE. The system also will reach the McGrath Amphitheatre across the Cedar River from downtown and the New Bohemia arts and commercial area, Roberts said.

Roberts said the details of pricing for customers are not yet known, but the system won’t be designed to provide Internet access to residents so they don’t have to purchase the service from a private-sector provider, he said.

Rather, he envisioned that those who pay a provider for Internet service will be provided a password by the provider to use the public-private Wi-Fi system as part of the customer’s private service.

Roberts used the example of a customer at a hotel that provides Wi-Fi access. Typically, the customer is given a password by the hotel when the customer checks in to use the system during the hotel stay.

At the same time, Roberts and City Council members Pat Shey and Monica Vernon, who have discussed the Wi-Fi proposal with Cedar Rapids school officials, said one alluring plus for the proposed Wi-Fi system is that it may be able to bring low-cost or subsidized Internet access to low-income neighborhoods where families cannot afford Internet service at home.

Vernon said some school districts across the country have provided students with computers only to realize that low-income students cannot access the Internet at home because they can’t afford the service.

She said the proposed Wi-Fi system contemplated by Cedar Rapids city officials could have the potential to be "an equalizer."

Jeff Janssen, vice president for sales and marketing at ImOn Communications in Cedar Rapids, said the company plans to submit a proposal to the city when the city seeks proposals from Internet providers early in 2014.

Janssen said ImOn already provides free Wi-Fi service to the NewBo Market in New Bohemia as a community service and as an example of what he said is the company’s "vision" to help make Cedar Rapids a "connected city."

"That means that Cedar Rapids is a better place to live, work and play, and one part of that is Wi-Fi connectivity," he said. "We really think that Wi-Fi is an important part of attracting people to a community, especially downtown.

"There’s a lot of great things that have happened downtown since the flood, and we want to continue to help the city build on that success, and offering wireless access throughout the community, but starting downtown, would be our vision."

Like the city’s Roberts, Janssen said it’s too early to know what kind of financial model might be employed if ImOn, Mediacom or another Internet provider is picked to participate in the city’s Wi-Fi program. But he said one idea might make the system available to anyone free of charge for a limited time on any given day and to Internet subscribers full-time.

Janssen said Wi-Fi equipment comes with a cost to the provider, and he said programs in bigger cities have not necessarily been profitable. At the same time, ImOn might benefit with a Wi-Fi program by building its brand as a local Cedar Rapids company, he said.

The city of Cedar Falls, which has its own municipal utility company that includes Internet services, has built a Wi-Fi system for use by its customers in downtown Cedar Falls and in the College Hill retail and entertainment area next to the University of Northern Iowa. The system also is in two city parks and a campground.

Betty Zeman, Cedar Falls Utilities’ marketing manager, said the utility opens the system up for free public use during the Sturgis Falls Celebration in late June and outside the UNI-Dome during home UNI football games. But otherwise, Cedar Falls Utilities’ system, which covers about 5 percent of the city, is limited to its Internet subscribers.

"For us, it’s a way to provide additional convenience and functionality to our customers," Zeman said. "That’s what’s in it for us. We want to have happy customers."

Cedar Rapids’ Roberts said the city wants to be involved in the creation of a Wi-Fi system in Cedar Rapids, in part, to direct how much Wi-Fi equipment makes its way on to light poles, traffic signals and other infrastructure in the city. There’s something else, too, he said.

"For the city, this is an amenity that will attract ‘knowledge’ workers in the future," Roberts said. "I think there’s a demographic that wants nice parks, bike lanes, trails and other amenities and they want connectivity. The city is competing for today’s and tomorrow’s workers, and this will be one thing that will be part of the mix."

Roberts said the city, Linn County and the Cedar Rapids Community Schools have constructed their own 131-mile, $10-million fiber-optic system in the community in recent years that provides service to their public buildings as well to the city’s network of traffic signals. This public fiber-optic system can help a Wi-Fi system expand in the city, he said.

The proposed Wi-Fi system in Cedar Rapids is not the first in the city. In 2004, a group of young professionals created an independent, non-profit organization to erect a downtown wireless network. The organization and system was called Corridor Free Wireless or cFree Wireless, with similar plans for Iowa City and Coralville.

The flood of 2008 damaged the Cedar Rapids’ system, and it was not brought back to life in the city, according to Doug Neumann, vice president at the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance.

In Iowa City, the city has limited Wi-Fi service in City Park, Mercer Park and the Terry Trueblood Recreation Area, but the city is partnering with the Iowa City Downtown District to provide free Wi-Fi in the Ped Mall in early 2014, Geoff Fruin, assistant to the city manager, said.

Scott Larson, Coralville assistant city engineer, said Coralville provides free Wi-Fi in a number of city-owned buildings as well as at S.T. Morrison Park and Coralville Creekside Ballpark.

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