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DC Wi-Fi plan runs risk of missing poor neighborhoods

In classic DC style, the District of Columbia is seeking bids from Wi-Fi vendors under a scheme where support for low-income residents is the major evaluation factor. Ironically, though, the plan leaves entire neighborhoods at risk for getting no Wi-Fi.
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Written by ZDNet UK on

In classic DC style, the District of Columbia is seeking bids from Wi-Fi vendors under a scheme where support for low-income residents is the major evaluation factor. Ironically, though, the plan leaves entire neighborhoods at risk for getting no Wi-Fi, the Washington Post reports. Ironically, it is the District's desire to serve low-income residents that makes the situation worse.

[U]nlike other municipalities such as Philadelphia and San Francisco that have commissioned such networks city-wide, the District plans to give its contract to the company that goes furthest in serving low-income residents with free Web access and even free computers and training.

The District's unusual approach means the network might not cover the entire city, leaving some areas unable to get the wireless service, which is expected to carry a monthly fee in higher-income zones.

The way the selection is set up, preference is given to vendors who propose to cover the most low-income residents.

"The essential evaluation factor will be: The more digital divide clients that you propose to serve within the first three years . . . the higher your ranking will be in the selection process," D.C. Deputy Chief Technology Officer Peter Roy, who is writing the District's request for proposals, said in an interview.

Roy said he hoped construction could begin by the end of this year -- while Williams is still in office -- and said large parts of it could be operational within nine months.

Using 2000 Census data, the District has identified the poorest parts of the city -- with about 100,000 residents -- as the highest priority for free service. The top tier -- more than 40,000 people -- is concentrated chiefly in Southeast Washington but includes people in other parts of the city.

The District plans to require that low-income residents receive a minimum speed of 500 kilobits per second downstream -- when data flows to a user's computer from the Internet -- and 150 kilobits per second upstream, from computer to Internet. The downstream speed is about 10 times the speed of standard dial-up access but falls far short of the speeds available with cable modem service or phone companies' DSL lines.

D.C. officials said it is impossible to say exactly where the network will be available and what service may cost paying customers until companies respond to their request for proposals, which has yet to be issued. Roy said the document was nearly completed.

After the request has been issued, D.C. officials must evaluate the proposals, select a winner, negotiate a contract and secure the approval of the D.C. Council.

Verizon, Comcast Corp. and RCN Corp., which are the major companies that provide Internet access over phone and cable lines in the District, all said they will look carefully at the District's proposal when it is published.

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