Unplugged

By MATT JERZYK  |  May 24, 2007
inside_mccaffrey
USER-FRIENDLY: Caprio describes wireless as the beginning of the end of an old model of delivering government services.

The business community buys in
Skeptics might question the impact of a statewide wireless network in a place that faces any number of economic development challenges, including an undereducated work force and a traditional lack of good jobs.
 
That’s why it’s significant that a number of partners — ranging from American Power Conversion to IBM, Intel, Lucent, and MetLife — were willing to join with the EDC and the Rhode Island Economic Policy Council for a feasibility study, released in May 2005, on the benefits of a statewide wireless network.
 
Then, RI-WINs instituted an eight-month pilot program, in Providence and Newport, placing wireless transmitters atop the Brown University Science Library and the Newport Hospital. The rural town of Foster is slated to be the next recipient of a wireless transmitter.
 
Kaplan says the pilot has “worked flawlessly. We showed that we can put the infrastructure in place. We also learned that there is a lot of interest from around the country, and around the world. People want to know what we’ve done and how they can become a part of it.”
 
Jack Templin, an Internet strategy consultant and co-founder of the Providence Geeks, an info-tech social club, is a big believer that connectivity is important for creating a knowledge economy. “That’s where the higher wage jobs are,” Templin says. “It’s where the innovation is taking place. It’s much more strategic than industrial or other kinds of jobs. We have to be operating at the highest-value activity to stay competitive, which are knowledge activities.”
 
Another big supporter of RI-WINs is Keith Stokes, the president of the Newport Chamber of Commerce. He notes that his board unanimously voted to support the statewide wireless project because of its unique use of government support. “It’s very rare when government steps into economic development and business planning issues and provides a benefit that can benefit all businesses simultaneously,” Stokes says. “Having a border-to-border wireless network that is fast, affordable, and efficient will allow all institutions — both large and small — to equally participate. Literally, this is a unique situation where all ships rise with the tide. It’s a welcome relief for Rhode Island businesses.” 
 
RI-WINs hopes to begin the 12-to-18-month process of building the statewide infrastructure this year — a process that will be done without any direct state financing. This comes after a telecommunications consulting firm, Altman & Vilandrie, developed a nonprofit business model and business plan for the next five years that, as envisioned, will allow RI-WINs to become self-sustaining within three years of operation.
 
The end result will be the placement of 125 transmitters — each about the size of a refrigerator in a college dorm room — throughout 1000 square miles of the state.
 
The only state assistance being sought for RI-WINs is a loan guarantee for the estimated $28 million cost, which will enable the project to be financed with private sector debt.
 
Kaplan, who says Governor Donald L. Carcieri included this guarantee in his budget, is “cautiously optimistic” that it will remain there when the General Assembly completes its work on the budget before adjourning. He praises Carcieri and legislative leaders — especially House Majority Leader Gordon Fox and Senator William Walaska — for their commitment to the effort.
 
The business plan, using conservative numbers, estimates there will be 35,000 users by the end of the fifth year of operation and that the project, through user fees, will generate $11 million in revenue. This revenue will allow the project to service its debt and to re-invest in infrastructure, so that the network stays current.

Wireless goes live on the bay
A project to deploy RI-WINs for port security in Narragansett Bay, which became fully operational in June 2006, brings together agencies like the Coast Guard, local police departments and harbor masters, and Rhode Island environmental and emergency management officials. They monitor traffic on the bay through text, voice, data, and video that users and first responders can immediately access from their desktops, laptops, or PDAs during their daily operations, and most importantly, in emergency situations.
 
The effort was funded with an $856,000 federal Homeland Security grant, making Rhode Island one of 12 recipients out of 130 applicants.
 
John Riendeau, the EDC’s defense industry manager, recalls how impressed the other grant recipients were when he gave a Washington presentation on the port security project. “Here we were in the bowels of a concrete building in DC,” Riendeau says, “and I was able to weave into my presentation a live tour of the Narragansett Bay through the wireless network that we built with RI-WINs. Everyone couldn’t stop talking about it.”   
 
Providence recently won a federal grant to expand the port security project up the Bay into Providence. The creation of these accessible inter-governmental communications networks hold the promise of preventing the kind of governmental bungling that horrified Americans after Hurricane Katrina.
 
General Treasurer Frank Caprio, whose 2006 campaign for office gained recognition for utilizing cutting-edge technology, like Inter¬net-based TV and on-demand commercials, recently announced the goal of making his office the first among the state’s general officers to use the RI-WINs network.
 
As one example of the benefits of wireless, Caprio points to how his office will have access to government information during meetings with retirees around the state, rather than being at the mercy of stationary computer stations (which may or may not exist in certain areas).
 
“This is the beginning of the end of an old model of delivering government services which required people to go to an office or public building to access services,” Caprio says. “The RI-WINs network will give us the power to create a new model of delivering public services to people on their terms, giving citizens access when they want it and from where they are. It will literally allow us to bring government to the people.”
 
Other pilot applications in the RI-WINs pipeline include projects with information technology personnel from CVS; an effort to fight food contamination by giving food inspectors access to real-time data; a project allowing state Department of Children, Youth and Families’ field workers to access files in rural communities, where Internet access is difficult; and a Brown University effort to connect all eight teacher-preparatory programs in Rhode Island.

What about civil liberties?
The promise of increased efficiencies between government, its citizenry, and businesses and their customers, provokes a healthy skepticism among civil libertarians. Steve Brown, the executive director of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, believes that new technologies like wireless networks have the potential to overwhelm privacy protections. 
 
“Every technology that is initially introduced as an efficient cure-all for a problem, at first, seems like a wonderful idea,” he says. “But when its use changes, and expands, and becomes impossible to stop, it’s a serious problem. It’s a huge issue for civil liberties advocates. Most of the laws to protect privacy weren’t created to anticipate the enormous invasions that new technologies can cause.”
 
The RI ACLU doesn’t have specific objections to RI-WINS, but Brown points to the General Assembly’s attempt last year to limit government’s use of radio frequency tags (RFIDs), tracking devices that can be used to track packages, or, in some cases, people. While Governor Carcieri ultimately vetoed last year’s legislation, the RI ACLU is pushing for its passage again this year. 
 
Kaplan notes that RI-WINs is just about creating the network, the platform, for government and business to use. “We’ll always bring the mindset that every time an application is put in place that security and privacy issues are forefront in our minds,” he says. “Why don’t we go into this with our eyes wide open, so that we can experience the learning curve together? We will never actually know the value of these technologies until we go through these learning curves.”
 
Indeed, technological progress in and of itself is fairly neutral. It is how technology is ultimately used that determines its social utility.
 
And as it stands, Rhode Island is poised to implement the first statewide wireless network. As succinctly put by Templin, the Internet consultant, “The general market has spoken that this is a good idea. We’ve put ourselves in a position to lead this thing. The race is ours to lose.” 

Matt Jerzyk, the editor of the blog www.rifuture.org, can be reached at mjerzyk1@cox.net.

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