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City interested in cutting Internet cord

There's a new push to make most of downtown St. Petersburg wireless. With support from top business leaders, bids are due next week.

By PAUL SWIDER
Published August 9, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - Business leaders in the city are encouraging a move to a citywide wireless Internet capability, bids for which are due in a week.

The city has been trolling for offers from providers for such a network and is using business interest as part of the bait. The city's wifi Web site, wifistpete.com, shows letters from Progress Energy, Home Shopping Network and the Poynter Institute, all offering support for and interest in ubiquitous connectivity.

"The area would benefit," said Dave Pierson, information technology manager for Poynter. "There are so many things you can do beyond the boundaries of the building."

The city asked providers to offer wireless access to at least 95 percent of the outdoor areas and 90 percent of indoor areas near outside walls and on the first story of buildings.

The city would cooperate with the provider, but users would pay for the service, except possibly in some common areas where providers could offer free connections as an enticement. City staff members hope to have bids evaluated by the end of August and final offers in hand within a month after that.

Progress Energy representative Cherie Jacobs said the company is working with the city to facilitate an eventual deployment of such a network.

Wifi relies on multiple small radios that transmit and receive Internet data from users usually from atop power poles or other infrastructure. It's possible Progress Energy might also be a user of the network.

"We've got hundreds of employees employed in Pinellas County," Jacobs said. "This could be another way of improving communications."

Wifi, or wireless fidelity, networks allow people to connect to the Internet from anywhere: homes, cars, parks, even boats, if they are close to shore. Many newer handheld devices and laptop computers come pre-equipped with wireless cards to tap instantly into such signals. Wireless networks are becoming a hallmark of cities seeking to attract or cater to tech-savvy professionals.

"It shows the area is progressive," said Jack Kindinger, the associate center director of the Coastal and Watershed Studies Team at the U.S. Geological Survey offices. "We're trying to attract fairly young candidates. Us having this keeps us up there with the rest of them."

Cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco are engaged in establishing wireless networks, some run by government, some private, some a mix. Washtenaw County in Michigan, home of the University of Michigan, is aiming to have countywide coverage by the end of next year.

A wireless network could also become part of research products. The Center for Ocean Technology at the University of South Florida has been toying with the idea of remote wireless sensors in Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico to give perpetual real-time data about water conditions and marine life.

While the city's wifi network would only extend a short way into open water, it could help spur test beds for the wireless sensors in various city lakes and streams. One idea is on the table to monitor water quality in Crescent Lake.

But a wireless network could also make Internet access more generally available.

The city's own description indicates an interest in creating "a stronger competitive environment so that there is affordable broadband access for businesses and residents of St. Petersburg."

Most of those supporting the city's efforts wrote letters emphasizing possible use by mobile employees.

"Our employees have to be either in the office or at home," said Gloria Higham, executive vice president of Interstate Transport, a logistics firm. "With wifi, they could be anywhere. And our visiting clients could use it."

Higham echoed Kindinger in saying wifi would be attractive to employees, especially those most communities wish to draw: gadget-loving creative young professionals. But the facility could also help with revitalization throughout the area.

"It would definitely bring business into the city," said Gloria Marcantuono, vice president for administration of Newport International, a seafood importer and distributor that just moved from Tierra Verde to downtown after rehabilitating a building the company bought. "There are very few places that can offer Internet availability."

Dunedin is deploying its own wireless network and there are some services available in small pockets of downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg. But Internet everywhere is still unusual enough to be a novelty and possibly an attractor.

"We want to make sure we do what we can to have all these assets in place to make ourselves more attractive," said Dave Goodwin, the city's economic development director, who added that citywide wifi is also meaningful to drawing college students to the area. "There'll be a time when it is not an extra amenity, when this is standard stuff."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com or by participating in itsyourtimes.com.

[Last modified August 8, 2006, 22:10:32]


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