PILSEN — Two entrepreneurs want to make free wireless Internet a reality for the entire city, starting with a pilot program along 30 rooftops in Pilsen.
The concept — Chicago Wi-Fi Project — was originally conceived by founder Todd Freeman earlier this year in response to what he said were high rates and slow service from major providers like Comcast and AT&T. Basic, free Internet should be available to all city residents, said Pavan Maddamsetti, Freeman's partner on the project.
"It’s just plain exploitative of customers who are not in the 1 percent," said Maddamsetti of other Internet providers' rates. "Having access to quality Internet is a kind of advantage that you can’t put a price on."
Chloe Riley chats about a pilot program that aims to bring free Wi-Fi to Pilsen:
The plan involves installing Wi-Fi antennas along 30 three-story rooftops in Pilsen. The antennas would then receive a signal from a data center at 725 S. Wells St.
Maddamsetti estimated initial equipment costs would be around $6,000 for each building, totaling $180,000.
Customers would not have to buy any equipment, such as a modem or router, in order to connect their devices, and the rooftop antennas would be less expensive than underground cables, Maddamsetti said. The initial goal of the project would be to connect everyone in the neighborhood with free Internet at speeds of one megabit per second, allowing users to access email, read websites and download files.
Those looking for faster speeds or to stream video would have to upgrade to several tiers of paid service, similar to plans offered by Comcast or AT&T. Plans would start at $10 to $20 a month.
Initially, only 3 percent of subscribers would have to buy a paid contract in order for the project to cover maintenance costs. As the program expands to cover more of the city, that percentage would go down.
In 2012, the city unveiled its own plan to bring wireless access to public areas like parks and beaches, with Wi-Fi hot spots already in place in Millennium and Garfield parks, in addition to the Montrose, Foster and Rainbow beaches, among others.
But Maddamsetti said those hot spots had limited reach and, in addition, the city's technology lagged behind what his team was in the process of creating.
"They're trying to set up Wi-Fi hot spots. That's an approach that’s been around for maybe 20 years and it's nothing new or innovative. It’s a drop in the bucket," he said.
While Chicago Wi-Fi Project does not plan to seek city or state funding, Maddamsetti said neighborhood groups — including Pilsen Alliance and the Pilsen tech hub Blue 1647 — have already expressed interest in raising money for the project. The company is also looking at several venture capital opportunities. And, while Maddamsetti said there were no city permit requirements or restrictions, the group would have to get individual permission from building owners to install the Wi-Fi antennas.
A 2009 study conducted in part by the University of Illinois at Chicago found more than 27,000 Pilsen residents were without access to broadband Internet. The majority of those surveyed listed cost as the No. 1 reason for lack of Internet access.
The study also found that Internet usage dropped among neighborhoods with a higher percentage of residents who were older, Latino, African-American, low-income and less educated.
For Nelson Soza, executive director of Pilsen Alliance, the idea of accessible Wi-Fi in Pilsen would help to close that gap, opening "a lot of doors to a lot of people in the community."
"A lot of people in the neighborhood don’t have access, so they end up going to McDonald's or the library," Soza said. "It’s a great project that we feel would have tremendous implications in terms of equality."