Antenna to boost low-income Net access

July 26, 2004


Sears Tower has a new antenna. Not the Sears Tower downtown, the original 100-year-old Sears Tower in North Lawndale. The antenna is part of a program to create Wireless Community Networks (WCN's) offering wireless high-speed Internet access to four underserved, low-income communities in Illinois.

WCN's are the brain-child of Chicago technology activist Robert Lieberman, CEO of the Center for Neighborhood Technology and Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn.

Thanks to Quinn and Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity Director Jack Lavin, the state is providing $200,000 in grant money to fund WCN's in North Lawndale, Pilsen and suburban Elgin, and Downstate in West Frankfort.

"The idea of Wireless Community Networks is something we want to explore," Quinn says. "This technology is the face of the future. We have to make it affordable and accessible."

"All four of these areas are underserved," Lieberman says, based on feedback from focus groups with local residents. The research demonstrates residents see a need for access to technology and would pay for the service if they could get an affordable price. Lieberman hopes to serve a minimum of 1,000 households per community at a monthly cost of $20.

Lieberman's program brings together low-cost, recycled technology and local community organizations to provide training and support.

He's teaming with the Homan Square Community Center Foundation and Neighborhood Technology Resource Center in North Lawndale and the Gads Hill Center in Pilsen.

"This is one of the most innovative projects we've seen," says Deborah Strauss, executive director of the IT Resource Center, which provides technology guidance to more than 300 not-for-profit organizations. "To not put this technology into poor communities exacerbates the digital divide."

Lieberman believes the commercial sector is just beginning to rediscover the purchasing power of low- and moderate-income communities. He hopes his initiative will demonstrate there is money to be made in underserved communities.

Ebert, iMovie, 'I, Robot'

It was SRO for SunTimes film critic Roger Ebert at the Apple Theater at Apple's flagship Michigan Avenue store recently.

The crowd wanted digital photos with Ebert before his talk about the way Mac's and Apple's iMovie software brings film-making to the masses.

Speaking of movies, Will Smith's thriller "I, Robot," is a must-see for its futuristic vision of Chicago. There's lots of symbolism reminiscent of U.S. Robotics, the data-communications equipment company founded here by Casey Cowell and sold to 3Com in 1997 for $8.5 billion.

John McCartney, former president of U.S. Robotics, still thinks Chicago is a terrific place for tech companies. "It's just tough convincing the rest of the world."

Digital Michigan tops Illinois

Despite "I, Robot," Illinois fell out of the top 10 list of the most digitally advanced states in the 2004 Digital States Survey prepared by the Center for Digital Government in Folsom, Calif.

It's bad news for Illinois, and signals a need for the Blagojevich administration to better articulate and promote its tech direction. Michigan is ranked No. 1.

No Opportunity (Fund)

Word is the Illinois Opportunity Fund, a venture fund for start-ups, fell victim to political infighting between Gov. Blagojevich and House Speaker Mike Madigan.

The program was proposed following a pro-bono study by A.T. Kearney in 2002 citing the need for more early stage investment capital. That followed a pro-bono McKinsey & Co. study in 2000 citing a similar need. McKinsey sees new emerging enterprises as the source of economic growth in Illinois.

Bits & bytes

Illinois Coalition President, John Maxson and U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) invited local tech leaders to hear President Bush speak in Glenview last week. Bush said Chicago will be part of the initial rollout of RapidCom, a new program to assure first responders can communicate in an emergency ... IIT's Tom Jacobius will organize the second annual Invention to Venture workshop here in October. The program targets engineering and science students aiming to transform inventions into business ventures. DePaul, Loyola, UIC, Northwestern, the University of Chicago and the Kauffman Foundation will sponsor.

Michael Krauss is a Chicago-based tech writer and consultant.


 ©2004 Marion Consulting Partners