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Published: Friday, 6/1/2007

Opposition rises to Toledo's Wi-Fi plans; 2 on council join Szollosi in calling for more input

BY JENNI LAIDMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Opposition strengthened yesterday to Mayor Carty Finkbeiner s plan to transform Toledo into a wireless community.

Two city councilmen joined Councilman Frank Szollosi in expressing deep skepticism, even though legislation granting a license to MetroFi, a company based in Mountainview, Calif., won t reach the council floor until June 12.

Mr. Szollosi also called for the creation of a regional wireless commission at a press conference yesterday morning, saying Mayor Finkbeiner s Wi-Fi plan needs a complete do-over. Maybe, Mr. Szollosi said, it is time to regroup.

Let s spend six months to a year really understanding what s already in place, Mr. Szollosi said. Let s give universities and schools a place at the table. And let s give people who don t have broadband access ... and the Chamber, and the folks at Buckeye [CableSystems] let s have all these folks at the table. That kind of public-private partnership model always pays dividends in so many ways.

There should be a public, transparent process, he said. That is not the process this administration is using.

The mayor s proposal is to permit MetroFi to install equipment throughout the city to allow Toledo residents, visitors, or people driving through the city to connect to the Internet wirelessly as long as they have a computer with wireless capability.

Computer users who would be willing to look at advertisements as they browse the Internet would have free Wi-Fi service. Those who prefer ad-free service would pay $19.95 per month.

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Mr. Szollosi criticized the cost to the city of the MetroFi deal $2.16 million over five years and said the city should not have bypassed a local company, Buckeye CableSystems, in its walk into a wireless future. Buckeye is owned by Block Communications Inc., which also owns The Blade.

Buckeye, they re the ones that put us on the map to begin with, Mr. Szollosi said. It was the company s Wi-Fi hotspots that led to the city being named the fifth most unwired community in the nation in 2005, he said.

But administration officials said yesterday Buckeye failed to meet even basic requirements of the city s request for Wi-Fi proposals, submitting a letter instead of a Wi-Fi plan.

We received a letter from Buckeye. We received a proposal from MetroFi. We decided we could not consider a letter to be a valid proposal, Patsy Scott, the city s director of information and communication technology, said at an administration-sponsored press conference.

You can see Buckeye explains that they really don t understand how to put the network over the city, she said.

Ms. Scott said MetroFi contacted Buckeye, asking the local company to partner with them.

But Joe Jensen, executive vice president and chief technical officer for Buckeye, said although a MetroFi executive called him, no meeting occurred and partnership was never on the table.

His question was, Would I be willing to listen to their story? I said I d be happy to hear what they had to say, Mr. Jensen said. That was in late February or early March.

Ms. Scott and other city officials dismissed concerns about the city s financial burden in the Wi-Fi deal, saying it would result in no net increase in the city budget.

If it s not zero-sum, it s not going to happen, said Todd Davies, the city s commissioner of development.

While Mr. Szollosi s assault on the Wi-Fi deal found some immediate allies in Councilmen Joe McNamara and Councilman George Sarantou, Council President Rob Ludeman dismissed Mr. Szollosi s position as no more than typical defiance from the South Toledo resident.

Frank [Szollosi] will pretty much dispute anything that the mayor proposes. This is just one more example, Mr. Ludeman said. If it had been a Buckeye initiative, he might have said the other company was a better company.

As to the deal itself, Mr. Ludeman said he will withhold judgment until the legislation makes its way to council.

If a proposal can be as budget-neutral as possible, then I think we should seriously consider it. If not, then I would say, go back to the drawing board and put out a different [request for proposal].

Councilman McNamara, however, faulted the administration for failing to consult enough key players, for example, council. I campaigned on initiating policies to encourage Wi-Fi in the city of Toledo.

Nor did the Finkbeiner administration make an adequate attempt to collaborate with the public library, UT, or local businesses, he said. That go-it-alone approach led to the poor response to the city s request for Wi-Fi proposals, Councilman McNamara said. Only Buckeye and MetroFi submitted anything to the city.

I don t think the city was realistic in what they were asking for, he said. In fact, the city request for proposals stated the city would pay nothing for Wi-Fi services.

I agree with what Frank [Szollosi] is doing. The city seems hasty, Mr. McNamara said.

Mr. Sarantou, chairman of the council finance committee, said he also questions how the city handled its request for proposals, and how it treated Buckeye.

I was not pleased with the response to Buckeye Cable. [Buckeye executives] said it was difficult to get clarification of what the city was looking for, he said.

But Councilman Betty Shultz, whose information technology committee will consider the Wi-Fi legislation, said: I think it s premature to jump to the conclusion that it s unaffordable and it s unworkable.

I d like to have [Wi-Fi] yesterday. she added. Further, she said, the formation of a commission as proposed by Mr. Szollosi is beyond a council member s powers.

Under this form of government, the mayor runs the city, she said.

Contact Jenni Laidman at: jenni@theblade.com or 419-724-6057.



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