[olug] Omaha.com Story from Robert Townley

rob.townley at gmail.com rob.townley at gmail.com
Tue Aug 15 02:03:53 UTC 2006

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Elmwood Park may go wireless.

i have been really impressed with dd-wrt.com - an open source wireless router firmware project.  Runs on different brands and some custom hardware.  

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Published August 13, 2006

Project aims for a wireless Omaha


Wireless Internet isn't just for coffee shops anymore.

Cities across the country are building networks that allow users to hop online for free, and Omaha could soon join the list.

The University of Nebraska at Omaha has partnered with the city to develop a plan and cost estimate for bringing free wireless Internet to parts of Omaha.

The goal of the fledgling project, dubbed Wireless Omaha, is to blanket the city with the service at no cost to users, said Hesham Ali, associate dean of UNO's College of Information Science and Technology.

Wireless Internet allows people with enabled computers and laptops to access the Internet without being connected to phone or cable lines. If Omaha moves forward with plans for wireless "hot spots," users would be able to get online indoors and outdoors.

The technology is coming to Elmwood Park this fall through a grant to Wireless Omaha.

Though most other locations have not been decided, Ali said, the group is considering tourist areas such as the riverfront and Old Market, as well as lower-income areas where fewer residents have Internet access.

"We want to bridge the digital divide and get wireless Internet into the underrepresented areas," Ali said.

Joe Gudenrath, a spokesman for Mayor Mike Fahey, said the city is eyeing all of downtown as a potential location.

"There are a lot of people who do business downtown who would really benefit," Gudenrath said.

Gudenrath said the city and UNO are working together on the plan, with UNO providing technical expertise. Once that plan is in place, the city would then determine whether it could help pay for wireless Internet, he said.

The group intends to make Elmwood Park, which is between UNO's north and south campuses, the first wireless location, Ali said. UNO will extend its existing campus network to cover the park, Ali said. Both students and the public will be able to access the network.

Ali said free wireless is not intended to compete with commercial Internet providers.

The public network will have limited capabilities. Users will not be able to send large files, he said. Instead, the network will be ideal for tasks such as checking e-mail and surfing the Web.

"This is really a service for casual Internet users," Ali said.

UNO and the city are seeking financial partnerships with Internet companies and other organizations to establish the wireless system, Ali and Gudenrath said. No such partnerships have been established yet.

Representatives of Qwest Communications and Cox Communications, both of which provide Internet services in Omaha, say they don't know enough about Wireless Omaha or what it's planning to say whether they think it's a good idea. Each said that it might be interested in participating, but would like to learn more.

"We'd love to sit down with the city and discuss it," said Kristin Peck, vice president of public and government affairs at Cox.

Qwest partnered with the city and UNO to bring wireless Internet to Rosenblatt Stadium during the College World Series, said Rex Fisher, who heads that company's Nebraska operations.

While the free Internet likely won't be a catalyst for economic development by itself, Ali sees the service as a way to boost Omaha's image as a technology-friendly city. That could help draw new companies, he said.

Wireless Omaha is being developed with funding from a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to UNO. A portion of that grant is funding the work of UNO students who are developing the plan. The grant also will fund the equipment needed to bring wireless to Elmwood Park.

Additional money will be needed to expand Wireless Omaha beyond that, Ali said.

Even if corporate partners are found, establishing the wireless areas could take a year or more, Ali said.

Wireless Internet can't come to Omaha soon enough for Omaha Public Library Director Rivkah Sass.

The W. Dale Clark main library and two branches - Swanson and Millard - this summer added wireless Internet. Though the feature hasn't been heavily publicized, Sass said, business travelers often come to the downtown library with their laptops, expecting it to have wireless Internet. The service is common at libraries in other cities, she said.

"We want to be on par with what other cities have," Sass said.

She hopes all Omaha library branches will have wireless Internet in the future.

A recent survey by Intel that ranked U.S. cities by the availability of wireless Internet placed Omaha 60th in the country. Seattle, San Francisco and Austin, Texas, topped the list.

Becca Knuth used to go online while in city parks when she lived in Spokane, Wash. That city's free wireless network covers 100 blocks of downtown. Now the Creighton University medical student spends hours each week in local wireless coffee shops while she studies.

"It was pretty nice to be able to get Internet wherever you were," Knuth said of Spokane. "I think it's a good idea for Omaha."

Outside Omaha, other metro-area cities also are considering going wireless.

City officials in La Vista, Ralston and Papillion have been approached by V3 Technology Solutions, a technology company in La Vista, with proposals to bring wireless to those cities.

The La Vista proposal would involve installing wireless Internet along the 84th Street corridor, while the Ralston proposal could include 72nd Street, 84th Street, downtown or the city's parks.

V3 President Henry Vargas said free wireless could help attract shoppers and businesses to those areas.

Ralston Mayor Don Groesser likes the idea.

He said he often finds himself searching for businesses that offer wireless Internet when traveling on business. Additionally, he said, wireless Internet could be another tool for law enforcement, because they would be able to get online in more locations.

Going wireless comes with a cost, however.

Vargas estimated the cost of installing wireless Internet to La Vista's 84th Street corridor at $33,000, plus about $500 a month.

Ali said Omaha's wireless areas probably wouldn't be that expensive, but he didn't yet know what the costs would be. Wireless Omaha will save money by using UNO students to install and maintain the network, he said.

Ali sees a lot of potential with wireless technology.

"If you're downtown, and you need to pick somebody up from the airport, think how easy it would be to open your laptop and check the flight status right then and there," he said. 
Contact the Omaha World-Herald newsroomCopyright ©2006 Omaha World-Herald®. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, displayed or distributed for any purpose without permission from the Omaha World-Herald.

Copyright 2006 Omaha World-Herald. All rights reserved.

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