Commissioners agree to help Freenet

Nonprofit Web provider gets go-ahead to use city property

City commissioners are willing to help a Lawrence-based not-for-profit wireless Internet company get started.

Commissioners Tuesday night unanimously directed staff to work with members of Lawrence Freenet to allow the group to place wireless Internet transmitters on city light poles, traffic lights, water towers and city buildings.

“I think this has the possibility to have some astounding benefits to Lawrence,” said Mayor Boog Highberger. “I think it will really enhance our image as a town that understands the value of modern communication.”

Lawrence Freenet leaders have proposed providing free monthly Internet access – via wireless Internet connections – citywide by January. The all-volunteer group launched the service at the beginning of this month in a 3/8th-mile area surrounding 28th Street and Kasold Drive, and has a dozen subscribers.

Joshua Montgomery, the group’s founder, told city commissioners that the city could boost the group’s ability to expand by allowing wireless Internet transmission equipment to be mounted on city property.

Wireless telecommunication companies normally pay a fee of $1,000 to $1,500 per month to locate on a water tower or other city property. Other types of utility companies pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in franchise fees to use the city’s rights of ways to locate cables and infrastructure. Montgomery asked commissioners to allow Freenet to locate on city property without paying a fee because it is a nonprofit corporation, with a primary goal of bridging the “digital divide” by providing free service to low-income residents.

Commissioners asked whether waiving the fee would create a bad legal precedent for the city. But David Corliss, the city’s director of legal services, said he thought it would not because the city could make a case for the community service that a not-for-profit company would provide.

To access the Freenet service, which won’t be available to businesses, residents will be required to buy from the company a $150 box that will be attached to the side of their homes to receive the wireless signal. Company leaders say that one-time, $150 charge is the only fee users would have to pay.

But Montgomery said for the group to survive, it will need to receive donations from users who can afford to pay for the service. But Montgomery said the company will send no monthly bills and will not disconnect anyone for a failure to pay. Users won’t have to meet an income test to apply.

Officials with competing for-profit companies did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, but Patrick Knorr, general manager with Sunflower Broadband, said he had questions about the city’s actions.

“I think they (Freenet) are trying to offer service to low-income people, and I think that is a noble cause. But I think anytime when government shows preference to a particular provider, that is concerning,” Knorr said. “I would hope they would treat all providers in an even-handed manner.”

Sunflower Broadband is owned by The World Company, which also owns the Journal-World. Knorr said Sunflower makes several efforts to provide Internet access to low-income people, including providing free service at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt.

Highberger said he did not think an agreement with Freenet would treat other for-profit companies unfairly.

“I guess I don’t expect it to make a significant dent in the for-profits’ business,” Highberger said.

New fire station gets go-ahead

City commissioners Tuesday night agreed to move ahead with the construction of a new West Lawrence fire station, despite bids coming in nearly $200,000 more than expected.

But before approving the construction of Fire Station No. 4 near 21st Street and Wakarusa Drive, commissioners expressed their displeasure with an architect’s cost estimate that turned out to be 9 percent too low.

City Commissioner Mike Amyx was the lone vote against moving forward with the project. He wanted to rebid the project to see whether costs could be brought down.

Other commissioners said rebidding the project likely would not result in a cost savings, but said they also were disappointed in the estimate provided by Lawrence-based Sabatini & Associates Architects. Dan Sabatini, president of the company, said costs to remove rock from the site were much higher than expected. He also said rising fuel prices had put inflationary pressures on the construction industry.

Construction of the station should begin this fall and be completed by late summer of 2006.

No-left-turn policy on 23rd Street expanded

A policy that prohibits left-hand turns off of 23rd Street onto five side streets was renewed and expanded by city commissioners.

Commissioners unanimously agreed to renew a policy that prohibits left hand turns from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday off of 23rd Street onto Ohio, Tennessee, Vermont and New Hampshire streets and Learnard Avenue.

Commissioners also agreed to test a policy that would prohibit left-hand turns at the same locations from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., Monday through Friday.

Carnegie Library to get makeover

Design work will begin on interior renovations for the former Carnegie Library Building at Ninth and Vermont streets.

Commissioners unanimously approved an agreement with Lawrence-based GLPM Architects to design improvements that would bring the historic building up to building and disability codes.

City commissioners will use part of a $98,000 federal grant to pay for the design work, which is expected to cost approximately $70,000. The design work is expected to take about six months to complete.

Commissioners did not discuss how the vacant building should ultimately be used.

Staff members said all the proposed improvements would be needed regardless of the user.

Tax-abatement issue sent back to committee

Commissioners took no action on a request from the city’s Public Incentives Review Committee to provide more information on how the city should deal with companies who have received tax abatements but have not produced as many jobs as expected.

Instead, commissioners sent the issue back to the committee to develop specific recommendations on how to deal with the issue. No date was set for the committee to discuss the issue.