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Published: Friday, 6/29/2007

Mayor to retool Toledo Wi-Fi plan, eliminate taxpayer funding

BY TOM TROY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner yesterday took a step back from his $2.16 million, five-year Wi-Fi plan, promising to seek more partners and to not spend taxpayer money.

The proposal to turn Toledo onto wireless Internet has faced Toledo City Council resistance because of the administration's inability to explain where the $2.16 million city share would come from.

Yesterday, Mr. Finkbeiner returned to the position he said he expressed in January - that Wi-Fi should be accomplished without city funding. Exactly what that means for the proposal from MetroFi, of Mountain View, Calif., which was being recommended to city council by the mayor, wasn't clear.

"There was some homework that didn't get done that needs to get done, and I take full responsibility for that," Mr. Finkbeiner said. "It may take a bit longer than was originally thought, which was the end of the year.

"I hope in a reasonable period of time we will have put together that which we need to make sure that the city of the future is also identified as a Wi-Fi city," Mr. Finkbeiner said.

He was referring to an article in the British fDi Foreign Direct Investment magazine in April that labeled Toledo one of the top "cities of the future" in North America.

He said the new approach would include trying to join economic development agencies, schools, and hospitals.

The mayor invited reporters to his office at 11 a.m. to hear a promised update on Wi-Fi.

Mr. Finkbeiner then took almost an hour to deliver a round-up of positive economic news, featuring representatives of city council, the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, and the Toledo Board of Education, while also addressing the Wi-Fi issue.

MetroFi's plan calls for about 1,600 wireless access points that would be installed on utility poles. Each access point would transmit between Wi-Fi enabled computers within its range.

MetroFi was proposing an initial investment of $5 million, which it would recoup over five years by selling $2.16 million in services to the city and its partners, subscriptions to business and residential customers, and advertising.

Residents would be able to sign up for free Wi-Fi if they agreed to accept a permanent one-inch wide advertising banner at the top of the screen.

The mayor's new stance on Wi-Fi was welcomed by critics on council who said there were too many unanswered questions about the plan.

"Obviously, I'm grateful the mayor wants to bring more people to the table, [and] take more time to make sure we get it right," Councilman Frank Szollosi said.

Mr. Szollosi said that, meanwhile, the city should try to move ahead immediately with a pilot project to provide wireless access for police and firefighters. He said the effort could use cellular broadband Internet.

Councilman Joe McNamara said he was "pleased the mayor has listened to city council's concerns and is prepared to go back to the drawing board.

"For the city to forge ahead without collaborators, community support, or a director of information technology would have been a disaster," Mr. McNamara said.

Mr. Finkbeiner said that his former information and communications technology director, Patsy Scott, had pursued an effort to come up with the $2.16 million by identifying savings that would be possible using wireless Internet.

Mrs. Scott resigned June 21 after walking out of a staff meeting in which she said the mayor was berating her in front of her colleagues. The mayor refused to accept her resignation and fired her the same day.

Mrs. Scott, reached yesterday, said the mayor knew when MetroFi's plan was received in February that it was going to cost the city money, but he refused to allow it to be re-bid.

"A lot of homework was done, and I continue to believe a Wi-Fi for Toledo is something that would be of great benefit to Toledo," Mrs. Scott said.

She said the mayor should have stuck with the plan.

Chuck Haas, chief executive officer and founder of MetroFi, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Tom Dawson, a spokesman for Buckeye CableSystem, which also responded to the January request for proposals, said the Wi-Fi technology that was being pushed by the administration is likely to become obsolete and is not an equally good solution to public safety and personal computing needs.

He said outdoor Wi-Fi doesn't penetrate well indoors, and that the Wi-Fi signal doesn't "hand off" well from one access point to the next, as cell phones do.

"There are a lot of problems with the proposal as they had it," Mr. Dawson said.

"We'd be happy to look at whatever technology is right for which use," Mr. Dawson said. "If it's a viable project, we'd be happy to participate."

Buckeye CableSystem is owned by Block Communications Inc., which also owns The Blade.

Mrs. Scott said there are inexpensive devices that solve both of the problems to which Mr. Dawson alluded.

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.



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