Chapel Hill launched free wireless Internet access last month. After years of planning and conversation, the town opted to begin with a small-scale project: Six hotspots along the downtown Franklin Street corridor provide Wi-Fi connectivity to all comers (see a map at Bob Avery, the town’s information technology director, says the pilot project’s annual budget is $10,000. The wireless broadband company Clearwire provides the service for a fixed charge of approximately $40 per month per hotspot. The number of hotspots could increase to as many as 10 by June 2008, when Avery will present a report to the town council.

Chapel Hill’s new venture comes when most of the national news about municipal wireless is bad. A recent Wired magazine article pondered, “What’s behind the epidemic of municipal Wi-Fi failures?” To find out where Chapel Hill’s effort fits in, we asked technology analyst Carol Ellison, a frequent contributor to, which tracks the policy and implementation of municipal wireless efforts across the country.

What is your impression of Chapel Hill’s plan?

My initial reaction is, this is a city taking a cautious approach, which is not a bad thing to do, to test the waters of your market and figure out how much use you’re going to get and based on that actual experience determine what the next step should be. Typically, a city council will initiate the discussion based on some sort of civic goal. Very often, that goal is economic development. At other times, cities want to address this notion of the digital divide, that there are haves and have-nots.

Bob Avery says economic development and bridging the digital divide are long-term goals, along with possibly setting up a system for city employees to work remotely in the field. As a separate project, the town has been working with the school system to provide connectivity to neighborhoods where a lot of students don’t have broadband access, but that also means getting computers to those students, which has been impractical so far.

That issue of getting computers to people is really at the core of any program a municipality would offer to bridge the digital divide. They’re allowing themselves enough time to look at some of the meddlesome problems such as: How do we get computers to these people? Do we have computer access through community centers? And maybe by having this additional time they’ll be able to pull in support of community groups and build constituencies behind some of these goals.

Other municipal Wi-Fi projects across the country have not been faring well. San Francisco, Chicago and St. Louis recently announced that their plans for citywide access have been derailed. How is Chapel Hill’s plan different from those?

I would be very surprised if Chapel Hill encountered any of the problems those larger cities have because they’re using a different model altogether. Chapel Hill is deploying one hotspot and then another. They’re not saying this is going to be citywide. They’re taking a very measured approach, as opposed to diving in and promising service to everyone. Secondly, the town is going to own the network, whereas in San Francisco and in Chicago, the private provider would have owned the network. San Francisco was working out the provisions of a contract with EarthLink at the time that EarthLink announced massive layoffs and the fact that it was retreating from the market, and Chicago was negotiating with EarthLink as well as AT&T. So both cities were really at the mercy of what the private provider was going to do. I’m impressed by what Chapel Hill’s doing because they’re really in control of their own fate. If for whatever reason things don’t work out with Clearwire, they could find another provider and it’s still their network.

I get a little upset with the general media because they’re looking at what happened with those two cities and making some broad-brush pronouncements about municipal wireless in general, and the reality is we’ve seen cities go in many different directions.