In meteorological terms, we have a new extended outlook on that whopper of a Wi-Fi cloud predicted to materialize over Pierce County – it’s no longer in the forecast.
CenturyTel, the Louisiana-based telecommunications company that installed a mini test cloud over Steilacoom this spring, has determined the technology works. But the limited profit forecast from a countywide cloud won’t work, said Jeff Nevins, company spokesman.
After Century’s Steilacoom test, which offers free wireless Internet access, ends Wednesday, users who want to keep using the system must pay $29.95 per month, according to information provided by CenturyTel to Steilacoom Mayor Ron Lucas.
The CenturyTel decision has left Lucas and Pierce County officials baffled, bummed out and generally under the weather.
“I don’t want to bash (CenturyTel), but I think it’s fair to say they didn’t apply themselves to find out if it would work in a business environment or not,” said Bill Oltman, executive director of the county’s Rainier Cable Commission.
Oltman originally put out the request for proposals for a countywide municipal wireless network. Ten proposals came back. CenturyTel responded that it could install a countywide system with limited free access, sell long-term access to residents and businesses, provide free services to government and make money.
“When this first came up, I said, ‘This sounds too good to be true,’” Oltman said. “Apparently, it was.”
But CenturyTel’s Nevins says the company always needed the Steilacoom test to determine whether a countywide Wi-Fi cloud would work.
“There were some significant misunderstandings about what we were willing to put forth and what the municipal officials in that area thought,” Nevins said. “We weren’t on the same wavelength.”
“We had to determine the feasibility of Wi-Fi in a broad area like that. That takes time. As you go through the process, things can change,” Nevins said. “It’s a great thing to have Wi-Fi; you could understand from a consumer point of view why people want it. But we have to pay attention to a bottom line. For us, profitability is crucial.”
CenturyTel still considers itself in the evaluation mode, Nevins said. Two months after it offers residents the chance to pay for wireless Internet access, it will decide whether enough have signed up to continue the service.
“I hope they’re successful just like we wish all businesses are successful in Steilacoom,” said Mayor Lucas, who chairs the Rainier Cable Commission. “I just think they may have bitten off more than they can chew.”
However, Lucas said, he will inform CenturyTel that it no longer can have free access to Steilacoom’s utility poles, electricity to power the pole-top transmitters and the town’s fiber-optic capacity.
CenturyTel got those concessions as part of the test. When the test ends, Lucas said, CenturyTel should have to pay a market-rate lease fee.
Meanwhile, Lucas and Oltman say, the cable commission will regroup and explore its options for pursuing a Wi-Fi cloud – perhaps with one of the nine other vendors who submitted proposals.
“People still want it,” Oltman said of the cloud. “It doesn’t necessarily mean the end of our plan, but it certainly is a setback.”
Dan Voelpel: 253-597-8785