Wired 4 Wireless

How did AT&T manage to be the only company bidding on the contract to bring Wi-Fi to St. Louis?

Equally puzzling were whispers that Janet Rainford, the wife of the deal's chief negotiator, is a longtime employee at AT&T.

Michael Wise dismisses the notion that jobs or Rainford's ties to AT&T ever came into play. "There was no quid pro quo," insists the IT director. Instead, Wise says, the city chose AT&T because it offered St. Louis a better deal than what other vendors have offered elsewhere.

He notes that in almost every other city, users are required to pay a minimum of $9 per month for Wi-Fi access. Says Wise, "AT&T is offering our residents the service for free. How do you get better than free?" (AT&T has yet to reveal its price structure for use beyond the free twenty hours; estimates range from $8 a day to $30 per month.)

Mark Andresen

In other cities, Wi-Fi providers also pay municipal governments hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for the right to install network devices on city-owned property. That won't be the case in St. Louis. But Wise says such fees are insignificant.

"I'm supposed to go with a deal that provides $400,000 to $500,000 to the city and ignore one of the biggest corporate benefactors in AT&T, [which] pays $25 million to $30 million in payroll taxes each year?" argues Wise. "What's wrong with going with the hometown team every once in awhile — so long as the terms and conditions are correct and the offer is unique?"

The problem, counters Donald Berryman of EarthLink, is that the city doesn't know what type of deal it could have reached with the competition. "Did they make their comparisons from what they read in newspapers?" asks Berryman. "It couldn't have been an apples-to-apples comparison, because they never solicited information from anyone."

Three weeks after the board approved AT&T's contract, EarthLink was set to get its first meeting with St. Louis officials, but Berryman wasn't optimistic that a contract can be reached.

"It was very quick the way this whole thing happened," concedes Berryman. "It's going to be hard for a second Wi-Fi to come in and recoup its investment."

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