City-wide Wi-Fi? Wi Not?



St. Louis residents may soon enjoy free, city-wide Wi-Fi access under a bill endorsed yesterday by the Board of Aldermen's Public Utilities Committee.

The proposed ordinance would allow AT&T the right to install Wi-Fi transmitters on city-owned buildings and utilities beginning this summer with a two-square mile patch downtown. Eventually the service will extend to all corners of St. Louis.

The mayor's office describes the agreement as a sweetheart of a deal for the city, but others aren't as convinced.

As presented to the Board of Aldermen, the agreement would cost the city no money, but neither would the city charge AT&T fees for the use of public property. Over the next three years, AT&T is expected to shell out between $8 million and $12 million to establish Wi-Fi service throughout the city's 66 square miles.

Residents would receive twenty free hours of usage per month. The telecom firm plans to recoup its investment by charging high-end users for additional hours and faster Internet speeds. Those fees would range from $6 to $8 per day or $19 for a month-long subscription. AT&T would also control advertising rights for the Wi-Fi service.

Jeff Rainford, the mayor's chief of staff, introduced the bill to the committee as a "tremendous amenity" for businesses, conventioneers and the general public. In addition to providing public Internet service, AT&T also pledges to provide the city with a separate signal to be used by the police and other public safety departments.

Rainford said the city did not issue a public bid for the Wi-Fi service because AT&T did not require a non-exclusive deal. "At any time if we're dissatisfied with the agreement, we can opt out," said Rainford.

Skeptics, meanwhile, question the backroom manner in which the bill was brokered — with the mayor's office handling the bulk of the negotiations. Alderman Terry Kennedy (18th Ward) said typically such legislation would seek the input of the city's Communication Division, which handles regulatory issues involving cable television. Kennedy was the lone alderman to vote against the ordinance, which passed Wednesday's committee meeting by a vote of 6 to 1.

"I'm concerned with the governance," said Kennedy. "This makes it seem like anyone can come in and make a deal with the mayor's office. It seems more politicized than it should be."

Introduced to the board last Friday, the ordinance could now be signed into law by the end of the week, thanks to a special session of the Board of Alderman to consider measures that have — so far — received much more attention than the Wi-Fi ordinance. Those bills concern public financing for Ballpark Village and a lease agreement for a section of Forest Park.

Dan Apelman, a media consultant who sat in on the committee meeting, questioned Rainford and others about the terms of the deal. He said St. Louis was highly unusual in that it did not solicit bids before selecting a vendor.

"Nothing drives a hard bargain like competition," said Apelman. "Nearly every other city puts out an RFP, and many cities charge the provider a fee."

Rainford responded that after tough negotiations — in which both sides threatened to walk away — the mayor's office and AT&T struck a deal just last week. It was then decided to push the ordinance before the Board of Aldermen adjourns for its nine-week spring break this Friday.

We'll keep you posted.

-Chad Garrison


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