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Picture downtown crawling with surfers

Web surfers, that is, on every bench and sidewalk. It could happen if a free wireless network is built.

DAVE GUSSOW
Published August 15, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - Don Shea wants to turn downtown St. Petersburg into a hot spot, and not just for shopping, restaurants, museums, entertainment and the waterfront.

Shea, president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, sees a day when people strolling, shopping, dining or hanging out along Central Avenue or Beach Drive can connect to the Internet, wirelessly - and for free.

"We would be depicted as a tech-friendly downtown," Shea said. "That would be a nice distinction."

Shea says his vision for a Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, zone may become reality soon, but he still has work to do to make it happen.

"The P.T. Barnum in me would like to launch it on New Year's Eve as part of the First Night celebration," he said.

Wi-Fi, which involves installing transmitters that beam radio signals short distances, is all the rage in the high-tech industry. Wi-Fi backers maintain people will increasingly want to connect to the Internet through mobile devices such as notebook computers and personal digital assistants.

Wi-Fi works on unregulated radio frequencies, and its most common standard is 10 to 20 times faster than a dialup Internet connection over a phone line. A newer version is even faster.

Thousands of access points, known as hot spots, have popped up nationwide, mainly at coffee shops, airports, hotels and bookstores. Typically, access in those areas requires a subscription roughly $30-$70 a month to a service such as Wayport (www.wayport.com) or T-Mobile (www.t-mobile.com/hotspot)

But some places have created public and free Wi-Fi zones. The most successful example of that in Florida is called the Digital Canopy in Tallahassee. It started out serving an area around the state Capitol and now has hopes of expanding its coverage area.

Digital Canopy was the result of a partnership between private business, government and universities, which provided about $500,000 in funding and equipment to get it going.

Shea picked up the idea last winter while visiting Long Beach, Calif. "It's just getting incredibly good reviews," said Shea.

Though he won't discuss specifics about his progress, he is looking to the private sector for sponsors to pay for what he estimates will be the $100,000-$125,000 startup costs to cover an area along Central Avenue and Beach Drive. Eventually, he hopes to expand to the entire downtown.

"I'm confident some of my boosterism is falling on the right ears," Shea said. "We are kind of turning the corner."

Though he hasn't sought any public money, Shea says St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker has voiced support for the idea, and he has received encouraging comments from downtown businesses. Baker could not be reached for comment.

While Shea says the Downtown Partnership (www.stpetepartnership.org) intends for the service to be free for users, the group might sell advertising for a Web page. But any profit would be restricted for what he called "community betterment projects," such as support for the arts.

The St. Petersburg effort seems to be ahead of other cities in the bay area. "We're in the research stage," said Christine Burdick, president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership. She thinks Wi-Fi could be a factor in plans to make Tampa's downtown more inviting as a residential area and for tech-savvy workers.

Dan Mayer, information technology director for the city of Clearwater, says he monitors Wi-Fi developments, but is not aware of any effort, public or private, for a Wi-Fi zone there.

"The successful cases across the country more often occur in university towns or other settings where you have a large amount of pedestrian traffic," Mayer said. "It's a neat technology, but it's technology that isn't necessarily being driven by market demand."

That's not stopping Shea's group in St. Petersburg. Shea sees benefits, such as attracting and retaining business, as well as creating an "interesting and enriched street life" for visitors.

He also acknowledges he has more to learn about the technology.

"I have a computer, and I have a laptop," Shea said. "And we have a small Wi-Fi thing at home. All I know is how to use it. I don't even know how to install it."

- Dave Gussow can be reached at gussow@sptimes.com or 727 771-4328.

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