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Phoenix isn’t hot about Wi-Fi proposal

City Council opts out of Umpqua Bank plan for free internet corridor
Wireless internet router concept . 3d rendered illustraition

Phoenix City Council has decided to let Umpqua Bank go it alone on a proposal to establish a free Wi-Fi hotspot corridor through downtown.

Umpqua Bank had proposed paying for the first year’s cost for 20 Wi-Fi spots, with a possibility of financial commitment for the future.

A bank official said Umpqua will examine its options after the council voted 4-1 Monday to table involvement following discussions on who would be attracted to the sites and potential costs in later years.

“We are still in the early state of the Wi-Fi corridor effort as a strategy to increase economic activity in Phoenix, but we want to be sure that the community wants this, so we don’t want to rush it,” Community Development Officer Brenden Butler wrote in response to a request for comment.

Helping Phoenix rebuild is a priority for the bank, he added.

Umpqua is revisiting outreach and activation strategies with its nonprofit partner, No One Left Offline, Butler wrote. NOLO has focused on providing free Wi-Fi and internet to foster parents in the state, but is collaborating with Umpqua on the corridor concept.

NOLO’s website says 42 million Americans lack broadband, creating a digital divide.

Umpqua Bank approached the city to seek its involvement with the project, said Phoenix City Manager Eric Swanson. Concerns that the hotspot equipment might be located in the public right of way led city staff to consider the idea and bring it to council, said Planning Director Joe Slaughter.

But he said questioning the city’s role is appropriate.

“I think this should be pursued by Umpqua with the business owners. They can still do it,” said Councilor Al Muelhoefer, who voted for a motion to table involvement.

He was joined by councilors Krista Peterson, Angie Vermillion and Karen Shrader. Councilor Ketzal McCready voted against the motion.

Wireless hotspots are proposed from North Sixth Street to South First Street along Main Street, which is also state Highway 99. Free Wi-Fi spots in downtown include the library, at 510 W. First St., and the Civic Center, at 220 N. Main St.

City Recorder Bonnie Pickett reported that people sit in their cars by the center to use the Wi-Fi.

Peterson described the scenes she sees at the library.

“Most of the time I see people there that, you know, they’re sketchy. I don’t see kids. I just see people there smoking their cigarettes sitting on the side of the building and bringing up the Wi-Fi,” said Peterson.

McCready said that free Wi-Fi provides a connection point to aid the homeless so they can use online services to look for jobs and housing, do school work and other things necessary to improve their life situations.

“While having people loitering is something that may make some people uncomfortable … what (NOLO) is trying to encourage is creating an environmental space where people are able to go after their opportunities,” said McCready. “For right now it’s free. It never hurts to do a trial run.”

Other communities have voiced concerns about free Wi-Fi attracting homeless people and others taking advantage of more than basic services, said Slaughter. He said efforts should be made to keep people from hanging out on vacant properties.

Three citizens spoke in favor of the project.

Jennifer Harper is having her Phoenix home rebuilt after the Almeda fire. Previously she walked her dog downtown and always passed by the library.

“I never saw any sketchy — quote, unquote — people there,” said Harper. She said Wi-Fi hotspots would be a boon for students who need access for school work.

“We have a lot of citizens that are homeless and disconnected,” said Harper. “If we are trying to bring our people home, I feel like we should do everything we can in our power.”

Former Mayor Chris Luz questioned why the city was getting involved, but said he’d like to see the project offered on a private basis for a year with the City Council studying it then.

Community activist Carolina Marshall said that Ray’s Market has free Wi-Fi and reported that one homeless young student regularly uses the breezeway at Ray’s to connect and do homework.

“I think it’s more important that we allow these places for the folks that need it,” said Marshall. “We learn ways to deal with the people that are scary or drunk, the mentally ill, or disrespectful to property. I like the idea of the hotspots.”

“On the face of it, I like the idea. I see the opportunity to create opportunities,” said Mayor Terry Baker. He did express concerns that once the service is established the city may be expected to pick up costs in future years. He said the city will face financial struggles in coming years as tax revenues decline due to the losses from the Almeda fire.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.