In January 2007, Mayor Francis Slay announced that he'd cut a deal with AT&T to outfit the entire city of St. Louis with low-cost wireless Internet. But the agreement, worth an estimated $30 million, fell apart once word spread that the city had failed to seek bids from other companies— and questions arose about how AT&T would power its WiFi antennas.
Now, two-and-a-half years later, a handful of citizens and business owners along St. Louis' Cherokee Street have set up their own public WiFi network using grant money, ingenuity and a stretched-out DSL signal — from none other than AT&T.
The service is called WasabiNet, and it's billed as a publicly owned and maintained "wireless Internet cooperative."It's powered by a series of inexpensive DSL routers that beam a WiFi signal around the neighborhood using technology called a "mesh-node network." It currently boasts download speeds of up to three megabytes per second.
It costs about $10 a month to join, and its membership is expected to soon jump in size, from 6 to 30 subscribers. Coverage spans from Minnesota to California avenues, but the network's creator, Ben West, hopes it will eventually extend from South Compton to South Jefferson avenues and accommodate up to 300 people.
West, an electrical and computer engineer, says the name of the service comes from a makeshift WiFi antenna he created using cans of wasabi peas bought from a local market.
"Normally, the signal radiates in all 360 degrees, but if you use a wave-can antenna, you can focus it in one direction over miles," West explains. "We're trying to avoid using the long-distance antenna, but if there are people at the end of the block [who] can't get it, sure, we'll do that. I have one set up in my house right now." Other cities, such as Champaign, Illinois, and Little Rock, Arkansas, already have mesh-node networks in place. West says the system only has the capacity to serve a single neighborhood, but he hopes other areas in St. Louis will adopt the idea, which he believes has benefits that go beyond a steep discount on the monthly Internet bill.He says that the network's log-in page will serve as a "community portal," with news of neighborhood meetings and events.
"It's a new class of sites that are trying to backpedal from making the Internet geography irrelevant," West says. "We want to use it to make people aware of their own neighborhood and build community cohesion, to build up a neighborhood's identity."
Minerva Lopez, president of the Cherokee Station Business Association and a collaborator on the project, says the area's Hispanic community was initially skeptical of WasabiNet, but several businesses have recently enlisted, including El Torito Supermercado, La Vallesana and Carniceria Latino Americana.
"I think they're used to seeing bulky routers and cables going all over the walls and ceilings," says Lopez, whose soccer shop Gooolll, on the corner of Cherokee and California, recently went online. "But as I started talking and explaining to them how it worked, they got a better understanding, and now it's being welcomed with open arms."
Woman Makes Video Apology to Police
Well, that settles that.
Last fall I reported on a case said to be the first of its kind in St. Louis: a police officer filing a lawsuit against a person charged with filing a false internal-affairs complaint.
As I wrote in November, south-city resident Cassandra Harris accused police officer Michael Haman of having sex and doing cocaine in a bathroom while he worked a secondary security job at Johnny Gitto's restaurant. More specifically, Harris told police in a message to the department's internal-affairs division: "If you guys don't do anything about this, I'm going to go all the way up to President Bush, and don't think that I can't. I will take all your mother-fucking jobs, I swear to fucking God. This motherfucker was letting her suck his dick in the bathroom."
Haman was put on leave as internal affairs investigated the incident, which Harris claimed occurred in the early-morning hours of February 27, 2008. But after interviewing witnesses and drug testing Haman, the police found Harris' accusation to be completely unfounded.
Meanwhile, police learned that Harris had appeared visually intoxicated at the restaurant, and Haman evicted her from the establishment after she threatened to "drop kick" another patron. It could have ended there, but instead Haman sued Harris last April, accusing her of slander, abuse of process and malicious prosecution. Representing Haman was St. Louis Police Officers' Association attorney Albert Watkins, who also requested that the St. Louis circuit attorney press criminal charges against Harris for filing a false claim.
The case finally settled May 19. In lieu of paying $100,000 in monetary damages, Harris instead issued a video apology to Haman. In the two-minute video, said Watkins, Harris actually appears sincere.
Father's Day Gift for a Suicidal Dad
Every publicist faces an inherent credibility problem when pitching a story to the media. In their never-ending quest to gain attention — and ink — for their clients, publicists rarely have the upper hand. They must dutifully, as essayist Lance Morrow once wrote, "chum the waters and bait the hook, and go trolling for love and laughter...."
Gretchen Hydo, of Chatterbox Public Relations in Van Nuys, California, recently came a-trolling with a rather remarkable pitch of her own. Hoping to convince RFT — or anyone for that matter — to run a story on how Skypanels are a perfect Father's Day gift, Hydo wrote:
"With Father's Day right around the corner, it's time to celebrate Dad. But when Dad's in debt, or in the doghouse, how do you mark that special day? And what do you do for a divorced Dad or the Dad who has it all? Go for 'the get' — in this case the gift — the one that won't break your bank, the one your gadget guru hasn't gotten. We all know he doesn't need another grill (or necktie)!
How about Skypanels?"
To the uninitiated, Skypanels are light diffusers that have photos of actual sky, clouds, palm trees, hot-air balloons and so on, to help create a more relaxed, soothing atmosphere. The panels are custom designed and fit into standard florescent ceiling fixtures.
Now, about that Father's Day pitch. I reached Ms. Hydo the morning of May 27 and asked, point-blank, whether Skypanels might be an appropriate gift for, say, a suicidal dad.
"Oh yeah, if Dad is suicidal, this will elevate his mood."
"OK, how about if Dad has a terminal illness?"
"Yes, it will help to brighten his mood, because he probably can't get outside much, so the Skypanels will bring the outdoors to him."
I pressed on.
"All right, let's say Dad is on trial for murder. Will Skypanels help with that?"
"No, I don't think it will help. Because if he's on trial for murder, he's probably in jail, and if he is, he doesn't deserve Skypanels."
Is there really anything more to say?
—Ellis E. Conklin