Friday, September 21, 2012

Bitten by the fickle promises of technology


Ketchum put itself on the bleeding edge of technology and bled somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000 dollars before the Ketchum Urban Renewal Agency pulled the plug on the citywide free wireless network this week.

The city wounded itself by ignoring Moore’s Law and a few laws of nature involving ice and snow and succumbing to the siren song of technology. The wireless network was ill-conceived, problem–plagued and mismanaged since it was put into place in 2007.

For more than 50 years, computing power has doubled on average every 18 months. Intel founder Gordon Moore was the first to notice the trend in 1965. Thus the doubling was dubbed Moore’s Law.

Moore’s Law is great for individuals and businesses that benefit from the ability to run bigger and bigger computer programs faster and faster. It’s great for companies that sell computers and computer networks. However, it means that computers and computer-driven equipment rapidly become obsolete. It means that networks constantly need updating. But the latest and greatest applications often come with hefty price tags, not to mention the cost of the human expertise to keep them operating. And even though networking and computing prices have come down over the years, they are not free.

The mayor, the City Council and their advisers became enchanted by the idea that people with portable laptop computers or smartphones could access the Internet through a wireless network. They became enamored of the vision of a community full of connected computer users at work at outdoor tables and benches or in indoor public establishments. They were wooed by consultants who told them that with the system Ketchum could be in the forefront of communities its size.

The mayor and City Council considered the network at a public meeting, accepted public comment and promptly ignored it.

Ketchum’s independent technorati weighed in against the idea in part because of the challenge of maintaining outdoor connection points in an icy climate. They expressed reservations about the network’s coverage area, which they predicted would be too small to garner enough use to justify the cost. They pointed out that restaurants were expanding Wi-Fi networks within their own walls and could make the system unnecessary.

Their experienced opinions fell on deaf ears. The city accepted a private grant to get the system running, chipped in $100,000 and took on annual maintenance costs.

Fast forward five years. The system is on the junk heap. Ketchum is not alone in paying a price to learn the painful lessons of a romance with the fickle promises of technology. It has a lot of company. Just ask anyone who invested in Facebook.




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