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Erie, Pa., Charts Course for Citywide Internet

A plan could be developed by 2019 to roll out free Wi-Fi across Erie.

(TNS) — Erie, Pa.'s status as a smart city is poised to take on new meaning thanks to the National League of Cities, the Erie Innovation District and Velocity Network.

The Innovation District, which now provides free Wi-Fi in Perry Square, is expected to develop a plan during 2019 to roll out free wireless internet that could eventually blanket the city of Erie, said Karl Sanchack, the organization's CEO.

Sanchack, who spoke Tuesday in Erie at the fall conference of the Pennsylvania Economic Development Association, said the impetus for that initiative came from a call from the National League of Cities, which represents 19,000 cities and towns across the United States.

In partnership with the philanthropic organization Schmidt Futures, the league announced in June that it was creating a new program, City Innovation Ecosystems, which is dedicated to helping cities thrive in the modern economy.

According to the NLC website, "The program marks a major new push by NLC to support regional entrepreneurship, innovation and STEM pathways in a time when too few cities are fully participating in the high-tech, global economy."

Sanchack, whose organization is led by Mercyhurst University, said the National League of Cities encouraged him to apply.

"They had been watching us for six months and liked what we were doing," he said.

When the National League of Cities announces its showcase of 15 projects in November, a project to provide Wi-Fi for the city of Erie and to develop an educational track for students of the Erie School District will be one of the projects highlighted, Sanchack said.

Sanchack said part of the goal, working in conjunction with Mercyhurst, is to develop a curriculum for Erie students to follow a specialty educational track that would provide select students with a basic certification in information technology that could lead to an entry-level job or credit that could be transferred to college.

None of this will happen overnight.

Sanchack said he expects that with the help of member organizations and a professor on loan from Mercyhurst University that the Innovation District will develop a plan over the next 12 months.

The nature of the arrangement with the National League of Cities suggests there might be philanthropic help if it's needed, he said.

Sanchack said it's likely that the Wi-Fi would be offered initially in the federal Opportunity Zones, where the need is greatest and there is a tax incentive to spur investment.

Timothy Wachter, who is both the lawyer for the school district and is working with the city on the Opportunity Zone plans, spoke Tuesday about the benefit that could be provided to students and praised Velocity Network for its act of corporate citizenship.

"I think this is a great philanthropic gift to the city of Erie," he said.

Joel Deuterman, whose company provided Wi-Fi in Perry Square, stressed, however, that he's happy to pay for the ongoing costs associated with providing Wi-Fi, but that his company will need help building the infrastructure.

The cost of building infrastructure in Perry Square was about $300,000. It will likely cost several million dollars to bring fiber optics and equipment to some of the most underserved areas of Erie, he said.

"We can provide the bandwidth with no limits on usage at no charge," he said. "That is something we are happy to do. If it were not for Erie, we would not exist. We are all blessed."

But building the network will take time and money, he said.

Once the work has been done, "Velocity will happily turn on the faucet," he said. "Whoever wants to drink, can drink."

©2018 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.