Plan to provide free Wi-Fi in Modesto needs work, committee says

Yesenia Loza of Turlock checks her phone while on lunch break at Tenth Street Plaza in Modesto on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014.
Yesenia Loza of Turlock checks her phone while on lunch break at Tenth Street Plaza in Modesto on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. bahbeck@modbee.com

The Modesto City Council’s Economic Development Committee asked officials Monday to do more homework on their plan to provide free wireless Internet service downtown to draw more people and help businesses.

Council members Dave Cogdill Jr. and Jenny Kenoyer – who serve on the committee with Councilman Bill Zoslocki – raised concerns about the service being financially self-sustaining, whether it is the government’s job to provide free Wi-Fi and whether it is appropriate to spend as much as $100,000 on the project as Modesto struggles to have enough police officers and firefighters.

Zoslocki was more supportive of the proposal, but also wants city officials to explore how to make the Wi-Fi service self-supporting through such means as advertising.

The three voted to have staff research and report back to the committee on how the proposal eventually could pay for itself. Deputy City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said she expects that would take about two months.

Zoslocki and some audience members said if the city provides Wi-Fi, it needs to ensure the service is fast, reliable and does not have gaps in its coverage.

City officials are working with Virginia-based CelPlan Technologies on three options: one that would cost $37,903 to provide Wi-Fi at Tenth Street Place, the city-county administration center; another at $82,081 that would provide Wi-Fi from the DoubleTree Hotel to the Modesto Police Department; and a final one at $100,000 that would expand that coverage to Graceada Park.

The cost of each option includes setting up the service and the management and maintenance costs for three years. The annual management and maintenance costs range from $3,419 for the least expensive option to $8,719 for the most expensive. Administrative Services Director Joe Lopez told committee members that the city set aside $100,000 from its information technology budget more than a year ago for the project.

Kenoyer said it would be difficult for her to explain to her constituents how the city can spend money on Wi-Fi when it does not have money for other pressing needs. Cogdill agreed, calling Wi-Fi a “luxury.”

Some downtown businesses offer free Wi-Fi, but Zoslocki said city-based Wi-Fi would provide seamless coverage and people would not have to sign on to a different Wi-Fi service as they leave one business for another. He and others said seamless coverage would help draw people downtown.

The plan won’t become a reality unless it is approved by the full City Council. But before that could happen, the Economic Development Committee would need to sign off on the plan and forward it to the council for consideration.