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Published: Tuesday, 6/26/2007

Toledo council withholds OK for $2.16M Wi-Fi plan; answers sought to financial, legal concerns

BY TOM TROY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Council members said they want to know how the city is going to pay for it - the details of which apparently are still locked in the office and computer of Mayor Finkbeiner's former information director, Patsy Scott, who resigned Thursday and then was fired.

Two councilmen raised the question of whether the city could be sued for accepting a proposal from MetroFi, of Mountain View, Calif., that is different from the free municipal Wi-Fi service for which the Finkbeiner administration sought proposals in January.

The information services committee meeting ended without a vote on whether to forward the MetroFi ordinance to the full council. Another committee hearing is scheduled for July 11.

At issue is a proposal to make Toledo a cutting-edge city that offers uniform citywide wireless Internet, instead of the hodgepodge of hot spots that currently exist in locations such as libraries, restaurants, and coffee shops.

The service would be paid for by advertising, business and residential subscriptions, and city funding.

The Finkbeiner administration contends MetroFi's propos-al is the same as free because it would be "revenue-neutral," meaning it would replace planned spending on information and data technology for police, fire, and other users.

But development Commissioner Todd Davies was unable to show council members the exact sources of the revenue yesterday.

Mr. Davies said revenue to meet the $2.16 million expense could come from the city's community partners, converting city cell phones to Wi-Fi, and Homeland Security grants.

He was challenged for details by Councilman Betty Shultz, who noted that Mrs. Scott said she had a plan in her computer to cover the city's $2.16 million commitment when she was fired.

"I do not have that plan with me," Mr. Davies said.

Mr. Davies said he obtained access to Mrs. Scott's computer, but did not find the information council members were seeking. She was the co-leader on the project with Mr. Davies.

Mrs. Scott walked out of a staff meeting Thursday after what she said was unprofessional criticism of her and Mr. Davies by the mayor. She turned in a letter of resignation, giving a departure date of July 13. But the letter was rejected and she was fired for insubordination.

Mrs. Scott was in the audience yesterday. She did not speak.

The administration has pitched citywide Internet as a tool for police and firefighters to instantly download building plans, rap sheets, or fingerprint data to the laptop computers in their vehicles.

In addition, the program has been cited as a way to address the so-called digital divide - the disadvantage suffered by people who have no access to the Internet.

Councilman Frank Szollosi pointed out that the MetroFi plan would supplant Wi-Fi hot spots already invested in by the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library and Buckeye CableSystem.

"I think that before council votes we should know what we already have," Mr. Szollosi said.

Buckeye CableSystem, owned by Block Communications Inc., which also owns The Blade, responded to the request for proposals, but its bid was deemed nonresponsive by the city law department.

Chuck Haas, co-founder and chief executive officer of MetroFi, said wireless "access points" would be installed on utility poles at 1,600 locations.

He said after the meeting that the company's capital investment would be $5 million.

He said the city could use Wi-Fi to monitor traffic signals, cameras, water tanks, and city workers.

"Every worker who spends a good part of the day outside the office will be more productive," Mr. Haas said.

MetroFi would provide free access to city residents who agree to accept advertising on the screen, a band Mr. Haas said would be about one inch wide. Otherwise, the cost would be $19.95 a month.

Councilman Mark Sobczak called for a vote to move the ordinance to the council agenda, saying municipal wireless was inevitable. He said council would have another chance to vote on the final agreement.

But Councilmen Joe McNamara and Ellen Grachek said the service should be rebid now that it is clear that the administration is willing to pay $2.16 million over five years.

The original request for proposals required the city to receive free wireless Internet services.

"I believe we would be on shaky legal ground. I don't want us to get sued," Mr. McNamara said.

Mr. Haas and an assistant gave a computerized slide show presentation showing that they operate or are negotiating to install Wi-Fi systems in 10 cities - all but one in the western United States.

He said Cleveland and Cincinnati recently issued requests for proposals, based on Toledo's initiative.

They said Wi-Fi is a standard technology that is finding its way into a billion devices that will be sold next year, such as BlackBerries and MP3 players.

"It's standards-based and it's cheap," Mr. Haas said.

Mr. Haas said the installation of the network could begin with a two-square-mile area within 90 days, with the rest of the city to take up to 12 months.

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.



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