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City OKs wireless plan
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 The Statesboro City Council decided Tuesday to move forward with a plan to install a wireless network in partnership with Clearwire communications.
    The project, which has been in the works for well over a year, will cost $686,000 with $323,298 coming from a Georgia Wireless Communities program grant awarded to the city in January 2008. The city’s portion will total $363,000, which will be paid for by obtaining a loan from the Georgia Municipal Association lease program, according to city manager Shane Haynes.
    A GMA loan is a low-interest, short-term loan that can be utilized by local governments to pay for infrastructure improvements. Current interest rates run from one to three percent.
    Before the vote, Mayor Bill Hatcher said, “I feel this is a great opportunity and I hope we don’t let it pass us by.”
    The council authorized the mayor and city manager to enter into final contract negotiations with Clearwire in a 4-1 vote, after a motion by Councilman Tommy Blitch and a second by Councilman Joe Brannen. The sole dissenting vote was cast by Councilman Travis Chance, who said during discussion he was concerned about the financial risk to the city.
    “I don’t think we need to go into debt, that’s just my opinion,” Chance said. “I hope I’m wrong but I don’t see us making any money on this.” 
    According to Haynes, an internal committee consisting of various city staffers recommended the council approve the measure.
    “We think the benefits far outweigh the risks in this case,” Haynes said.
    In the current proposal, the city would receive 100 free wireless accounts in exchange for allowing Clearwire to place equipment on two of the city’s water towers. In addition, the city will receive a 10 percent gross revenue share from  Clearwire for the first 5 years. After that, according to the city’s wireless consultant Karl Edwards of Excelsio Communications, ownership of the entire network would revert to Clearwire.
    “The assumption is that after the initial five years, the revenue share will end.” Edwards said at the meeting.
    Hatcher said that the city is working on renegotiating the long-term revenue share with Clearwire.
    Councilman Will Britt, who has often been critical of the financial projections presented by Edwards, explained that a reduction in the cost of police cellular service for laptop connectivity was a big reason for his vote.
    “Immediately off the bat, the city of Statesboro is going to spend $350,000 to save $150,000. If the contract comes in anywhere where it should, we should break even. We should have a revenue stream approaching $200,000 over five years and after that we are still provided with account for the use of the towers,” Britt said. “I think it’s a break-even project. I don’t see it as a money generator. From a business standpoint, having that mobility coverage may be something that tilts somebody to move to Statesboro.”
    Britt said the only way to get Clearwire into as small a market as Statesboro was for the city to invest in the infrastructure.
    Lee Johnson, president of Northland Communications, is concerned about the council’s decision. He said he applauds the mayor and council for being forward thinking and trying to bring better communications to the city, but is troubled by the both the agreement with Clearwire and the method used to fund the network.
    “Why would the city choose to fund a multi-million dollar company with tax-payer money when (the company) can fund it themselves? Granted some of the money is grant money but even that comes from the taxpayers at some point,” Johnson said. “If it’s such a great deal…and I’ve looked at their projections, if they do 50 percent of their projections it will be a good deal for them.  So why does the city have to take taxpayer money and fund it? I don’t understand that.
    “(Karl Edwards at the council meeting) talked about start-up companies Google, Intel and others, but none of them were funded by government funds. That was private money. I think it starts a bad precedent for the city to start funding private enterprise.”
    Johnson said he doesn’t understand why the city would deed the network over to Clearwire after five years.
    “In five years, the city gives (the network) to this company. Sounds like a good deal to me. This company seems to have no risk since the city is putting up all the money,” Johnson said. “I’ve seen these things happen before, where companies are funded, they built it up, sell it off then take the money and run. I’m not saying that’s what going to happen here but I’ve seen it before.”
    “It’s a little disturbing when you think the government is going to fund with taxpayer dollars this multi-million dollar company and in five years (the city) will deed it over to them with no further benefit than the free accounts.”
    The city could easily get the same free accounts, or some similar benefit, in exchange for space on the towers, Johnson said. He said he’s also concerned about citizens that don’t even use Internet service getting stuck with the tab.
    “I wonder if the city has really done their due diligence and really looked at what they’re going to be getting,” Johnson said. “If it fails, 100 percent of the taxpayers are going to have to pay the tab.”
    People have accused Johnson of just being worried about competition, he said. According to him, competition is not something that he’s is afraid of, so long as the playing field is level.
    “(Northland) pays a franchise fee for the right to operate here. It’s a good partnership with the city and I have no problem with that,” Johnson said. “But if you’re going to bring competition in here to compete with me, then turned around and give it to them and get nothing for it after five years, then I should get some consideration too.
    “I had a gentlemen tell me, ‘Lee, you’re just afraid of competition.’ Well, I’m not afraid of competition. There’s plenty of competition out there. But I am afraid of government subsidized competition. Where does it end?”
    The Herald spoke to a wireless network professional who has utilized WiMAX technologies in his company’s network development and integration projects and who is also familiar with the Statesboro area. He asked not be named since his company competes directly with Clearwire in some markets.
    According to him, WiMAX is an emerging technology that is similar to current wireless except that is has more power, which enables it to be transmitted farther. This is because WiMAX uses a specific bandwidth, licensed from the federal government, which allows for powers levels 10 times greater than WiFi The added strength means the signal can also penetrate better through foliage and walls, but that quality diminishes the farther away from a transmission tower a user is.
    Clearwire’s parent company, Sprint, owns the exclusive rights to the bandwidth that WiMAX operates on. That means no other local service provider would be able to offer WiMAX service without an agreement with Sprint.
    In his experience, WiMAX adoption by consumer has happened more quickly in rural areas where this is little to no competition from cable or phone companies. In urban and suburban areas where there are more options, WiMAX has caught on slower because of the ubiquitous nature of WiFi.
    His opinion was that the utilization of WiMAX by emergency responders and police was a good one. Still, he cautioned that WiMAX tends to work more effectively when the signal receiver is stationary. There is also concern that users may have problems connecting with a WiMAX device when more than a couple of miles from a transmission tower because some USB ports in laptops don’t have enough power to generate a strong enough signal. However, results vary from laptop to laptop and from one USB device to another.
    Regardless of the device used to connect, the professional said WiMAX works best when there is direct line of sight, not including the occasional tree, between the tower and the receiver.
    Tentatively, Clearwire will offer three levels of service: $25 per month for Georgia Southern students, up to $60 for residential customers and from $50 to $80 for commercial customers. Speeds should be about 2 Mbps download and .5 Mbps upload, which approximates DSL speeds.
    Phil Boyum may be reached at (912) 489-9454
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