Baltimore courthouses join wireless age

Net subscription service seen as boon to attorneys

lack of bidding criticized

May 24, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

There's a buzz around Baltimore's Circuit Courthouse, and it has nothing to do with the cicada invasion.

It's the hum of laptop computers connecting to the Internet using wireless technology that was recently installed in the Clarence M. Mitchell Courthouse and Courthouse East downtown, making them the first wireless-ready courthouses in Maryland.

It's also grumbling from some, including the owner of a local wireless Internet company, over a no-bid contract given to Courtroom Connect, a San Francisco- and New York-based company that is providing Internet connections for a fee in the courthouse.

"It's like giving away a prime parking space in the city for free to someone while making everyone else pay," said Paul Dowling, owner of Believe Wireless, a Towson-based wireless Internet service company. "We could have provided that service."

Officials at Baltimore's Circuit Court said they were not required to go through the bidding process before awarding the contract to Courtroom Connect because the company hooked up the courthouse for free.

"We didn't buy the service," said Administrative Judge Marcella A. Holland. "The court didn't buy anything."

Courtroom Connect spent about $20,000 wiring the two buildings. In return, it will be the sole provider of Internet service in the courthouse for three years.

The most likely users of Internet service in the courthouse are attorneys. A yearly subscription costs about $200 per person, said Courtroom Connect's president, Louis Goldberg. Service for one day costs $10.

The idea was hatched when former Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller got a call from a lawyer asking if she wanted wireless access in the courthouse. She called a contact number for Courthouse Connect and the process began. When Heller retired in November, she handed the project to Holland, her successor.

"We were sure this would be of great benefit for people who came to the courthouse," Heller said.

Policy experts say that because Courtroom Connect stands to profit from the deal through the subscription fees it charges Internet users, the contract should have gone out to public bid.

"The presumption is there should be an open public bid to ensure the best deal for the government and ensure there is no hanky-panky," said Donald F. Norris, director of the Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis and Research. "If you don't have an open public bid, you don't have that assurance."

Another company might have even paid the court system to install the wiring, Norris said.

Other jurisdictions, such as Alameda, Calif., Manhattan, N.Y., and Wilmington, Del., have made deals with Courtroom Connect similar to the one the company has with Baltimore's court. Those places neither paid nor received payment to set up their courthouses for wireless Internet service.

Goldberg said Courtroom Connect has an advantage over other companies because of its experience hooking up courthouses across the country and its aggressive marketing.

"There are definitely other people who could do the technology, but they don't have the people to provide seamless service to law firms," Goldberg said.

He said that his company will offer on-site technical support, help lawyers print documents, and alter security levels on their computers.

In Baltimore, assistant state's attorneys can log on for free, Goldberg said. He said he intends to make the same offer to public defenders.

Everyone else must pay for the service, which lawyers say they are eager to use.

The service allows anyone with a wireless-ready computer to do as the name suggests - connect to the Internet without plugging in any wires.

The connection is made using wireless fidelity, or wi-fi, technology, which is often used in coffeehouses or Internet cafes. It works like a cordless phone, using radio waves to transmit high-speed Internet connections to wireless receivers in laptop computers.

In the courthouse, it means that lawyers can hook up to the Internet while at the trial table, accessing documents and files that otherwise would be cumbersome to bring to court. Attorneys also can use the computers for exhibits, to quickly research case law or find trial information on the court's computer system.

"I would absolutely subscribe to that," lawyer Darcy Massof, who handles civil and domestic law and is frequently in the courthouse, said of the service.

Holland said only lawyers could use the Internet while court is in session; court spectators and jurors could not subscribe to the service and surf the Web during a trial. Just as spectators are not permitted to use a cell phone or read the newspaper in the courtroom, hooking up to the Internet would be considered a breach of decorum.

But it's permissible for anyone to use the Internet in the cafeteria or outside the courtroom.

Baltimore civil rights lawyer A. Dwight Pettit said his staff would use the wireless Internet service more than he would.

"They are more computer-literate than I am," Pettit said. "I'm from the old school, trying to play catch-up. I'll be kicking and screaming at first, but I'll be there with everyone else."

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