Was it a scam from the beginning? Was it a rip-off of government money? Or was it just poorly organized and poorly managed?
Now an audit has revealed that a government-funded program that was supposed to provide free wi-fi access to low-income residents of Los Angeles County isn’t doing so, those are the questions authorities are asking.
Here’s the basic background: A non-profit named Manchester Community Technologies (a worthy sounding high-tech name if there ever was one) received a government grant in 2012 to “install free wireless Internet along busy boulevards in low-income neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles County” according to an expose in the Los Angeles Daily News.
All was supposedly going well less than a year ago when MCT told the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) that more than 100,000 people were using its hotspots to connect to the Internet.
Now it appears that those rosy statistics were either (a) always a figment of MCT’s imagination, or (b) no longer true.
It turns out that very few of MTC’s hotspots actually provide local residents with internet access. The Los Angeles Times followed up on the Daily New’s report by sending reporters out to test actual hotspots and found that the hotspot signals were few and far between. The Public Utility Commission took note of those media reports and sent its own staff members to visited the WiFi hotspot and they were able to gain internet access in just two of 25 locations.
Uh-oh. MTC is about to find out that it does not pay to upset the the California Public Utility Commission. That public watchdog has now announced that it is planning an official audit.
Pounding government money down a rathole
According to ArsTechnica.com, “Manchester Community Technologies is part of a consortium of nonprofits that received $2.3 million over three years in a grant funded by phone bill surcharges, the Daily News report said. The grant supported various programs for promoting high-speed Internet usage. Of that, Manchester Community Technologies managed $453,000, overseeing the WiFi project and other tasks.”
It appears that the loftily-named Manchester Community Technologies is looking more like the Wizard of Oz, with a charlatan hiding behind a curtain. The organization has just one full-time employee, executive director, Revlyn Williams.
So how did it intend to install, maintain and expand its network with just one paid employee? Believe it or not, with one subcontractor, a team of unpaid interns, one subcontractor, and according to the Daily News, a staff “subsidized by a county welfare-to-work program.”
The story gets worse and worse. Although Williams “said the networks had all functioned at one time,” he admitted that the technical situation has deteriorated significantly. However, according to the Times, she deflected criticism by saying that “businesses that form the backbone of the networks sometimes shut down their routers at night, lose equipment to theft, or don’t rely on the Internet enough to keep it running.”
(We do not claim to be business geniuses, but we would have thought that companies chosen to host the hotspots would have been thoroughly vetted to find out if they shut down their routers at night or didn’t rely on the Internet enough to keep it up and running. But maybe that’s just us.)
Another problem? MTC’s network depended on installing hotspots in public buildings, but Los Angeles city officials were worried about Internet security problems, so they refused to allow public WiFi on city property.
(It seems to us that this issue should have been hashed out before MCT’s proposal was ever funded. But we’re not surprised because this is just another one of those cases in which one government agency finding itself in conflict with another government agency. To be specific, the state thought this network would be a fabulous idea, but the city didn’t. And neither of them ever thought of consulting with the other.)
Now Williams faces an even bigger problem. Her organization’s three-year grant has expired, and government teat is no longer available to be sucked. She says MTC efforts will continue with “God’s help.”
(Our point of view? Unless God intends to step down from his golden throne, come down to earth, write a competent business plan, find some new government suckers, strap on a tool belt and begin installing additional hotspots, He will be of little help in this situation.)