An Evanston 150 working group is pushing a long-term goal of establishing free wi-fi service across the city.

The group, which calls itself “The More You Know,” has paired that goal with shorter-range objective of creating one or more locations described as “a third place” — combining aspects of a branch library, a computer lab and a coffee shop with free wi-fi access.

Your can read more about the state of their planning here (.pdf).

Free wi-fi sounds like a wonderful idea — almost as good as free beer — and as a online publisher, how could Evanston Now not like it?

We’ve been wondering about the state of the so-called “digital divide” in Evanston, and just ran across an interesting report published a few months back by the Investigative Reporting Workshop, based on data collected by the Federal Communications Commission.

Map courtesy of American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop. Data available here.

It shows, as you might expect, that residents of some parts of Evanston are more likely to have high speed internet access at home than those in other parts of town. And it suggests that having broadband internet is at least somewhat correlated with income.

But it also shows that access levels in Evanston generally are much higher than for the Chicago metro area as a whole — where the average access level is estimated at 63 percent

There are some important limitations to this data. It only deals with internet access through wired services — in Evanston that’s Comcast cable and AT&T’s Uverse service.

So it doesn’t include high speed internet service people may have through wireless providers — including Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and Clear.

And it offers no indication of what access people may have to the Internet at work, or through existing “third places” — like local coffee shops.

But we think it raises important questions about whether city-wide free wi-fi access should be a community goal, what that goal really means — free wi-fi to every home, or just to certain accessible public places, and who’s going to pay for our free beer, oops, free wi-fi.

What do you think?

Related story

Poverty stretches the digital divide (Investigative Reporting Workshop)

Poll options not fit your view? Want to say more? Comments are open below.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. Problems in the data evident

    As pointed out in the original story, the data is fascinating but hobbled by the technique used. This is quite evident if you look at the "student ghetto" area and Northwestern University (8093/8082.02) census tracts, which show 40-60% broadband. I find the data a bit hard to swallow for those areas. While it does not mean other areas are not accurate, it points to the problem.

  2. Who gets access

    Would this be for residential use only?  Could retail businesses use it?  What about big organizations like Northwestern?

  3. Free, but how much will it cost?

    I really don't see how I could answer this question without some estimate of the cost to the city (and taxpayers) for the "free" wi-fi.

    1. Cost?

      The Evanston 150 group hasn't mentioned any cost figures in its report.

      Municipal wi-fi projects that have been attempted in the past have cost many millions, and have for the most part been failures. See: Where's my free wi-fi? (Slate) and Reality bites (The Economist).

      However, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel earlier this month told his staff to examine the technical and financial implications of turning downtown Chicago into a giant wireless hotspot (The Guardian). No cost estimates for that project yet, either.

      — Bill

  4. Use case

    First – the concept of getting more people online and using the network is to be applauded.  But I believe there is much to think about as we evaluate the best ways to accomplish this goal.

    City wide wifi was a VERY hot concept about 10 years ago and many municipalities that kicked off efforts have pulled back their plans as they have not seen a benefit usage pattern to justify the cost.  Today people who want wifi typically find ways/places to get it.  We can improve the access without covering locations that will have LOW usage.

    The key is to answer the question: What are we trying to solve with this City Wide Wifi?  The use cases of hot spots versus City Wide ubiquitous coverage are NOT the same.  Here are some use cases to consider:

    1) Access at home – many people already have this and for people who can't comcast has programs that are significantly discounted.  How can we improve the awareness of these programs?

    2) Commercial access – most businesses who want people sitting in their facilities already offer wifi.  See the wifi maps that are available.   Perhaps we can encourage GREATER coverage of outdoor commercial facilities and provide visibility to the businesses.  Again – how can we improve the awareness.

    3) At schools and public spaces:  many already have guest access including Northwestern, D65, 202 and city facilities.  Perhaps we should look to have them offer limited outdoor access to the properties including a few parks and downtown center core.

    4) On the go spontaneous usage – this is a costly proposition for a small use case senario.  Most people who need/want access are stationary at a location – rather than walking down the street.  Maps directions are the killer app for people on the go.  Some people already have this use case covered with their cellular data packages.

    5) Government usage – some cities are working to get a better ROI on the wifi that they have deployed by using it for governement IT related usage.  The applicaitons need to be defined and evaluated.

    6) Build it and they will come.  This use case is based on – we don't really know how/why it will be used but if it is built good things will happen.  I would suggest that this is mostly targetting the developer community. In fact San Jose has moved forward largely on the build it and the will come model and is ONLY targeting the dense downtown area:

    My suggestion is to start small and grow.  There is much improvement to be had without breaking the bank.

    There is great work on this being done by the E150 workgroup.  Getting many people to voice their opinions is a great next step.  Thanks for starting this dialog!

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