July 7, 2006 By Blake Harris
In March this year, the city of St. Cloud, a community of 28.000, launched a citywide wireless broadband network that provides free Internet access to residents and businesses. After the network had been up and running for the first hundred days, we talked with Glenn Sangiovanni, former Mayor of St. Cloud (who pushed through the initiative), now vice-president of MRI and Jonathan Baltuch, president of MRI, the company who were consultants to the city throughout the project.
DC: Why don't you start by describing what you were planning, what you hoped to achieve and what you put in place?
Glenn: I'll start and let Jonathan jump in anywhere he things he should. Basically we started out looking at this as an initiative that was brought to us through MRI because they were helping us with economic development on another project. They went out and researched through out the country to see what this technology was all about and what the benefits of it were. And when they came back and shared it with me as an elected body, we were just so excited about it because there was an opportunity there to not only spark our local economy but also quality of life. And that was very important. We had certain surveys that we did throughout the city three years running which was handled by MRI as well. And we found that 72 percent of our community used the Internet. Then we went a step further and we started to determine what were they spending on this and also a break out of who was high speed, who was dial up and who was disadvantaged and didn't have access at all. (And we also say that dial up, they are disadvantaged as well.) So we found that other that 72 percent, there were another 28 percent that weren't getting anything. Then we started looking at the dollar figures and we found out that the average person was spending $437.00 a year on high speed Internet access. We went back and looked at their tax bill and we found out that the average tax bill, just the city portion of your tax bill was $350.00. So they were paying more for this one service, the Internet service, that for all the services that the city provided, which is public safety, parks and recreation, administration, water, all that stuff. So we said, this is crazy.
Then we looked further and we said what if we kept those dollars in the community. And we found out that that collectively, it was $4 million that was leaving our community. We tried to trace the money. Jonathan looked and tried to see if it was being spent in St. Cloud or being spent in Osceola County, and it was neither. And in most cases it was leaving the state. And we said here is a perfect economic opportunity, that if we can keep those dollars locally -- and we always say as a rule of thumb that every dollar spent locally will roll over seven times. And if that is even close, you are going to save your local economy anywhere from $4 million to $28 million every single year by doing this one project.
Jonathan: Plus you are creating the educational opportunities and social opportunities. You are connecting everybody. You are putting everybody on an even playing field. Then on top of that, we studied internal city services and we identified the system was going to cost $500,000 a