Friday, December 04, 2009

Wireless Perversity In Chicago *

The Power and the Glory

According to his internal political clock (which seems to be synced to the gestation periods of certain types of scorpions for some mysterious reason), about every 18 months or so Da Mare suddenly notices that it has been about 18 months since the ungrateful bastards in the local media have sufficiently praised him for his brilliant technological acumen, at which point he announces that he is going to solve the local "digital divide" problem by throwing pennies at it.

Looks like our 18 months is just about up (from the the Sun Times):
The final technology initiative is Daley's plan to bridge the "digital divide" two years after pulling the plug on an $18.5 million wireless Internet access system that would have reached into Chicago's poorest communities.

It calls for four impoverished neighborhoods -- Englewood, Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn and Pilsen -- to be declared "digital excellence demonstration communities" that will be flooded with technology to demonstrate the Internet's "transformative power."

Microsoft has agreed to donate $1.1 million worth of software to help 28 non-profit organizations in those neighborhoods. Another $2 million from Microsoft, the MacArthur Foundation, the Local Initiatives Support Corp. and the state will help bring Internet access to schools and public spaces.

Let me be clear: I believe the provision of basic high-speed internet access (and assistance with the wherewithal to use it) is exactly the sort of service a modern municipal government should provide -- especially to its most criminally neglected communities. However, I also know that anyone who has followed the Clown Car Fire and Boat Drill antics of the Daley Administration over the years as it has boldly made -- and then broken -- this same promise would be wise to approach this latest Civicnet Vaporware release party with whatcha might call Olympian levels of incredulity.

For those of you who haven't followed the hilariously fucked-up saga of Wireless Perversity In Chicago, here's a little history to catch you up.

Once upon a time...

February, 1999:

The Chicago Civic Network Project, will create a network providing high-speed telecommunications to every residence, business, and institution in the City.

"I envision the entire City residents, businesses, and institutions using this network to access on-line education programs, video-on-demand services, telecommuting and on-line community organizing," - Mayor Richard Daley, February 8, 1999.

That was CivicNet, which was to be one of those Miracles of Unleashed Private Sector Awesomeness --
When Chicago Mayor Richard Daley two years ago announced a project to build a metropolitan-area network (MAN) called CivicNet, he stressed that Chicago didn't want to get into the telecommunications business. Instead, from the start, Daley wanted to have vendors in the private sector take the lead in building and managing the network.

But Daley knew that for equipment vendors, service providers and project engineering firms to step up to the plate, the city would have to offer something in return. So as part of the deal, Chicago is offering to be the anchor tenant on the network -- a major incentive for private companies because the city spends more than $30 million per year on network and telecommunications services.
-- which so completely ensorcells Da Mare even though he has never actually worked a day in his adult life at anything but a Gummint Job.

Fortunately, Da Mare's brother Bill has plenty of gritty, real-world private sector experience that Hizzoner can lean on if he needs to.

Experience like, say, running a telecommunications company.

In fact, consider what a superwonderful coincidence it was that Da Mare happened to decide that giving away a $30 million municipal telecommunications monopoly was very best way to help the poor, internet-deprived people of Chicago at exactly the same time his brother Bill became the President of SBC? And just at the precise moment that SBC happened to be desperately trying to claw its way out of a hole and into the high-speed internet market.
An Old Politician Moves to the Boardroom
Published: Monday, November 19, 2001

William M. Daley, the campaign chairman of Al Gore's unsuccessful presidential bid, has decided to move down to what was once enemy territory, Texas, to become president of SBC Communications.

Mr. Daley's selection comes as SBC is fighting on several financial and regulatory fronts to enter new long-distance and high-speed Internet markets and return to a period of greater profitability.

As many of its customers sought to cope with their own economic troubles by cutting back on telecommunications services, SBC reported last month that its third-quarter profit fell 30 percent and that it would eliminate thousands of jobs. The company also cut back on a $6 billion project, known as Pronto, intended to make fast Web access available to 77 million people by the end of the year.

I mean, how incredibly lucky can one city be?

Anyway, for awhile, as long as no one looked too closely at what was actually being accomplished, CivicNet could generate the requisite glowing, tounge-kiss headlines for Da Mare (May, 2001):
CivicNet is recognized nationally as one of the most innovative approaches to broadband infrastructure and addressing the digital divide. It was cited in the May issue of Wired magazine as a unique way in which government is using its purchasing power to bring high bandwidth to the city as a whole.

And kick off the usual round of overheated speculations about how rich we were all gonna get by way of Hizzoner's wise, and virtually risk-free investment:
CivicNet may boost property values and redevelopment projects?

by Tom LaPorte | June 17, 2002
i-Street Magazine

Even though the city is still months away from awarding the CivicNet contracts, some leaders of the effort are already looking around the next curve on the information superhighway. CivicNet may change more than the speed of neighborhood data connections. It may have an impact on everything from property values to the alignment of suburbs.

CivicNet, of course, is the City of Chicago's strategy for bringing high-speed Internet connections to all the city's neighborhoods. By "bundling" demand across all government agencies, a single provider gets a big contract for voice
and data services. Fast connections are installed in schools, libraries and other government buildings. The result is a wired city.

Scott Goldstein, [vice president for policy and planning for the Metropolitan Planning Council]...also suggested that CivicNet in the city's neighborhoods could hold a key to redevelopment of business districts. Many neighborhoods lost retail trade to regional shopping malls and Walmart-type discount stores. But if a CivicNet strategy results in high-speed connectivity in an older business district, there could be a return migration by businesses needing or wanting high-speed access. In the same way that businesses locate near concrete highways and sources of water, they now will have to consider proximity to a network hub as a factor in their choice of locations.

Oh boy! I like money!

It then limped along for a little while (from March, 2004, with emphasis added):

Portions of the network could be built with local government fiber already deployed along roads and Chicago Transit Authority lines. Unfortunately, to the frustration of local business and civic leaders, the city has done very little with the project since its' conception in the late 1990s.

and eventually vanished
Kinks in plan to wire city for speed; Economy, timing strand CivicNet.(News)


A city-sponsored proposal to lace Chicago with fiber optic lines from 138th to Howard streets is stalled and appears unlikely to be revived.

The telecommunications crash, politics and a city budget crunch have combined to mothball CivicNet, a project that was supposed to put broadband within reach of every business and home in Chicago.
without a trace.

There were no survivors, and no one was ever rude enough to mention above a whisper that Da Mare's Big Internet Plan had turned out to be mostly boondoggle, double-talk, and political moonshine.

Then, a few years later...

March, 2006. (emphasis added)

"After serving the post of Chicago CIO for six years, Chris O’Brien felt it was his time to move on. Hardik Bhatt, who officially succeeded O’Brien on March 13, said in an interview with ePrairie that he sees a fully Wi-Fied Windy City in 2007.

“We don’t have to be the first city,” Bhatt said about the vision of Chicagoans being able to walk a laptop from Starbucks to their laundromat and to their home without disconnecting from the high-speed Web. “We just have to get there. I see the city being fully interconnected sometime next year.”

Yay! I still like money!

June, 2006

Chicago Takes Bids for Citywide Wi-Fi Service
In an effort to bridge the “digital divide,” the City of Chicago is moving forward with plans to offer Internet access to all residents. On May 30, Mayor Richard Daley announced a request for proposals from vendors competing for a 10-year contract to provide wireless Internet access throughout the city.

Wi-Fi - short for Wireless Fidelity - enables mobile communications devices, like laptops and personal digital assistants (PDAs), to connect to the Internet without the use of any wires or cables. A citywide wi-fi system would allow residents to have online access from virtually anywhere in the city.

June, 2007 (Video from the "City That NetWorks" summit, at which the Dukes and Duchesses of the Great City wished real hard and clapped reeeeeal loud, so that Broadband Tinklerbell would live again! I do believe in fairies!! I do! I do!)

However, Eight Weeks Later...

Chicago scraps plans for citywide Wi-Fi
Officials say it's too costly and too few residents would use it

CHICAGO - An ambitious plan to blanket the city with wireless broadband Internet will be shelved because it is too costly and too few residents would use it, Chicago officials said Tuesday.

"We realized — after much consideration — that we needed to reevaluate our approach to provide universal and affordable access to high speed Internet as part of the city's broader digital inclusion efforts," Chicago's chief information officer, Hardik Bhatt, said in a statement.
So how could someone go from promising the world to delivering nothing and still keep their job?

One might speculate that very, very lavish flattery might have helped:
In working with Daley, Bhatt asserts that the mayor bleeds technology. He added: 'In a 15-minute meeting, he always gives me five or 10 points I didn't even think about. He understands very quickly and gives me a good direction. He's on top of a list of all the visionaries I've worked with at Oracle and anywhere.'

Then, a few years later...

July, 2009

Mayor Richard M. Daley today announced new initiatives to help close the “digital divide” in Chicago neighborhoods, guided by a city-commissioned study that says that 25 per cent of Chicagoans are completely offline and that another 15 percent have limited internet access.

“The study tells us that the magnitude of the digital divide separating low-income Chicago neighborhoods is comparable to the rural-urban divide in broadband use,” Daley said in a news conference held at The Resurrection Project, 1814 S. Paulina St.

“If we want to improve the quality of life for everyone, we must work to make sure that every resident and business has access to 21st century technology in their own neighborhoods and homes,” the Mayor said.
Yay! Money! And so forth!

Which brings us pretty much up-to-date, except for one little-known fact: that Da Mare's people had a virtually identical proposal for a small, well-reasoned pilot program in their hands five years ago (Full disclosure; I am acquainted with some of the people who contributed to the proposal. They are, to put it mildly, a trifle cranky.) It was designed to do almost exactly what this latest plan is supposed to do: technologically uplift a specific, geographic region, then carefully test and measure the efficacy of providing near-universal high-speed internet access to that area.

It was summarily rejected not because of the price tag, but because it wasn't splashy and spectacular enough. Because it was wouldn't guarantee complete, wall-to-wall coverage of the entire city in one year and at virtually no cost.

In other words, because it didn't promise a big, steaming heap of technological magic and economic voodoo with political miracles sprinkled on top.

And because, as is all too often the case, Da Mare's people were far more interested in headline-generating gimmicks than in real solutions, in the end they went with the nice man who promised them they could have the city "fully interconnected sometime next year”, while the other other plan was sent off to rot on some forgotten library shelf.

Another of the great mysteries about this strange tale is the behavior of Da Mare's people at this critical juncture: that rather than being righteously indignant at being led down the primrose path by someone whose resume would indicate that they damn well should have known better, they instead very generously decided to let that nice man keep his new job and politely ignore the fact that the very lavish promise he made in order to secure that job was yet another cocktail of boondoggle, double-talk, and political moonshine.

Weird, isn't it?

Of course, all Chicagoans of good will should wish City Hall godspeed and good luck with this latest iteration of the Neverending Project, because:
  1. This is simply too important to fuck up again, and
  2. They are the only game in town.
However if past performance is any indicator of future outcomes, anyone who has watched the last 10 years of promises, excuses, failure, rinse and repeat should now be permanently locked into "Trust, But Verify" mode.

Because the one, clear lesson lesson which can be drawn from the last 10 years is, sadly, pretty simple: If you want to get ahead in City Gummint, when Hizzoner has one of his Special Mayor Moments and suddenly announces that the City's grave financial and structural problems can be fixed by, say, selling all of its parking meters to corporate grifters...

...or blowing hundreds of millions of dollars to sponsor a three-week sports extravaganza seven years from now...

...or, WTF, maybe inducing city pigeons into pooping out 100,000 tiny ingots of gold...

...rather than being one of those annoying, dour, “reality based” buzz-killers and pointing out that his visionary pigeon plan might not be 100% biologically viable, instead reach deeeep into the biggest sack of horseshit you can find and say, with absolute sincerity;
“You know, Mr. Mayor, I sincerely believe wit all my heart dat doze pigeons could shit 200,000 ingots of gold – and piss liquid platinum – if only da right person were to be, y'know, put in charge of managing your brilliant vision.

"On behalf of all da poor children.

"An' hardworkin' mudders.

"An' old people.

"Of da Great City of Chicago.

"Dat we all love so much."

Or, as Evilene eloquently explained 30 years ago in “The Wiz”, if you want to succeed in the viper pit of City Hall office politics, the one thing you never, ever want to do is bring Hizzoner no bad news:

“Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News”
When I wake up in the afternoon
Which it pleases me to do
Don't nobody bring me no bad news
'Cause I wake up already negative
And I've wired up my fuse
So don't nobody bring me no bad news

If we're going to be buddies
Better bone up on the rules
'Cause don't nobody bring me no bad news
You can be my best of friends
As opposed to payin' dues
But don't nobody bring me no bad news

No bad news
No bad news
Don't you ever bring me no bad news
'Cause I'll make you an offer, child
That you cannot refuse
So don't nobody bring me no bad news

When you're talking to me
Don't be cryin' the blues
'Cause don't nobody bring me no bad news
You can verbalize and vocalize
But just bring me the clues
But don't nobody bring me no bad news

Bring some message in your head
Or in something you can't lose
But don't you ever bring me no bad news
If you're gonna bring me something
Bring me, something I can use
But don't you bring me no bad news

* (Title respectfully pilfered from this early play by David Mamet, and subsequently abused by me)

Proud member of The Windy Citizen


Cirze said...

Isn't it sad how it's no longer even ironic when you discover that money meant to serve the public interest is divvied up among the relatives of the elected public protectors?

Is Chicago/Illinois beyond saving?

Is the US?


this latest Civicnet Vaporware release party with whatcha might call Olympian levels of incredulity.

Anonymous said...

Now, people are doing what I envisaged the internet making possible 10 years ago.

Thank you very much.

I have many faults and foibles but no one has ever dared to deny that I have excellent taste.

Anonymous said...

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wireless some times i feel very lazy about these

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