The Digital Divide in Houston: Now What?

First, Houston planned for a “cloud” of free wireless to blanket the entire city. When that didn’t work, it settled for small “bubbles” of wireless in certain neighborhoods. The Houston Chronicle recently reported that it, too, did not pan out. What’s next — a “nanopocket” accessible only to molecules?

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To a Philadelphian, Houston’s wireless dilemma is all too familiar.

In 2004, then-Mayor John Street vowed that all of Philadelphia would be blanketed with wireless access to the Internet. It would be the country’s first “hot city.” Houston had similar aspirations (and catch phrases) — a wireless “cloud” would bring digital equality to every neighborhood in the city.

Not so. Like Philly’s “hot city” plan, Houston’s “cloud” idea failed last year. Soon after, it admirably began to reach for a more attainable goal instead — wireless “bubbles.” These pockets of wireless access were intended to give free home connectivity to people in the city’s low-income neighborhoods. But earlier this week, the Houston Chronicle reported that this digital dream, too, would be deferred. Instead, the city will direct $3.5 million to a wireless program that’s available only at certain community centers, non-profit groups and schools. This means that anyone who isn’t taking classes or participating at these places will be sans password, and therefore sans access to the free wireless.

Why build a network, and then keep some of your citizens from using it?

Admittedly, it sounds fishy. And so does does this: in Houston’s downtown area, a Wi-Fi network is hooked up to wireless parking meters, making the free Internet available to anyone who’s close enough to a parking spot. There are about 20 of these areas throughout the city’s downtown, and many of them are outside.

Ostensibly, the government has figured out a way to provide free Internet to its downtown residents, but not to its citizens in surrounding low-income neighborhoods. Glenn Fleishman, the editor of the blog Wi-Fi Net News, called Houston’s Digital Inclusion Initiative “unheard of.”

But it may not be as simple as blaming a misinformed or corrupt government. If free wireless was available to all citizens, the network may slow. People might also cancel their subscriptions to other service providers, which would eventually drive up costs for the wireless program. And, really, what’s wrong with requiring that people go to their local community centers or schools to access the Internet? Wouldn’t that compel people to become more involved in their neighborhoods?

In the end, the program that initially looked to be a failure could create a stronger – and more connected – community. Or it could flounder, like so many wireless programs in Houston and elsewhere have.

To read more about confounding free wireless programs throughout the country (as well as a few that have done the impossible and made it work), look out for Helen Hwang’s piece, The Digital Divide, in Issue No. 21 of Next American City. The issue hits subscribers at the end of the month, newsstands on December 1 and online shortly thereafter.

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Tags: philadelphiainternet accesshoustonjohn street

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