A city unplugged
As the bids come in for St. Petersburg’s attempt to make wireless Internet access available everywhere in the city, Bright House reveals it has expanded outdoor service downtown.
By KRIS HUNDLEY
Published September 6, 2006
On the day St. Petersburg took a giant step toward eventually providing citywide wireless Internet capability, a familiar face said it was already providing wi-fi capability, at least in parts of the city.
Bright House Networks, which provides everything from basic cable TV to high-speed Internet access, said Wednesday that it already offers wireless access in downtown St. Petersburg’s Straub Park and Municipal Marina. Over the next 90 days, it plans to expand that service to additional outdoor locations in the city’s downtown core.
“We can see where the industry is going,’’ said Joe Durkin, Bright House spokesman. “There’s tremendous desire among consumers to utilize the Internet and access their e-mail and not be tied to an office, desk or house.’’
Though patrons at Starbucks can access e-mails from laptops and PDAs, area municipalities have dreamt for years of extending wi-fi, or wireless fidelity, coverage outside to common areas, from public parks to street corners. Far from being a luxury, universal wi-fi is being seen as a necessity for residents, as well as for attracting tourists and new businesses.
Finally, there are indications that city fathers’ dreams are moving toward reality. Earlier this summer, St. Petersburg called for proposals from commercial vendors willing to provide wireless access service throughout the city’s entire 60-square-mile area. On Wednesday, the deadline for proposals, five companies responded.
Competitors for St. Petersburg’s bid are ATC International, Miami; Azulstar, Rancho Rio, N.M.; Citi WiFi Networks Inc., St. Petersburg; Earthlink Municipal Solutions, Atlanta; and E-Path Communications Inc., Tampa. Details of their proposals were not available Wednesday.
St. Petersburg’s chief information officer, Muslim Gadiwalla, said Bright House’s plan to offer wi-fi downtown won’t interfere with a citywide rollout by another vendor. “The technologies can coexist,’’ he said. “Then you’ll have two companies competing for business.’’
Gadiwalla said St. Petersburg sees its role as a wi-fi facilitator, bringing in a commercial vendor that will assume the cost of building a wireless infrastructure across the city, then recoup its investment through user fees.
(Under Bright House’s plan in downtown St. Petersburg, wi-fi access will be free to its RoadRunner customers; others will pay 99 cents for 30 minutes or $8.95 for 24 hours of usage.)
The city might benefit financially by leasing space on some of its buildings for wireless antennae, but it doesn’t expect to make money on the system. City officials are also hoping that bidders will sweeten their offers with some freebies for city residents, like the first hour of wi-fi service for free.
Rick Baker, St. Petersburg’s mayor, said his chief criteria is that coverage be citywide. “Some companies cherry-pick the more affluent areas, ignoring large parts of the city,’’ he said. “We’re also asking if they’d consider providing low-cost or no-cost service to certain low-income areas. We’re thrilled we got five pretty strong proposals.’’
Baker said the city studied earlier models, including Earthlink’s bid to provide wi-fi to Anaheim, Calif. “We didn’t want to be the first one out of the box,’’ he said.
In the Tampa Bay area, Dunedin put out its request for proposals for citywide wi-fi in 2004, selecting Citi WiFi Networks last year to install the system. That rollout has encountered several delays, but is expected to begin offering service in October with users paying $24 to $29 a month for the service.
Frank McCarthy, president of Citi WiFi, which has also bid on the St. Petersburg proposal, said the snags in Dunedin were inevitable when introducing new technology to the real world.
“Maybe we did not do that great a job of managing expectations in Dunedin,’’ McCarthy said, “but you don’t want to get in trouble by signing customers up before the system is bulletproof. You only get one chance at a good first impression.’’
Since landing the Dunedin contract, which is structured as a private-public partnership, Citi WiFi has been awaiting City Council approval of its contract to install a similar system in Treasure Island. It has also received a letter of intent for the wi-fi contract in West Palm Beach, McCarthy said.
Glenn Fleishman, editor of WiFi Networking News in Seattle, has been watching municipalities grapple with the desire to go wireless for the past four years. Cities have gone from simply wanting wi-fi in public libraries to demanding it everywhere, he said. And to make it happen, they’ve tried a variety of strategies, from relying on ad-supported free networks to tiered fee services with limited free time.
Fleishman said he is not surprised that Bright House is eschewing the city’s bid to run its own network in a more limited area. “It’s very inexpensive to put in one wi-fi gateway,’’ he said. “It’s a harder proposition to make it economically viable when you’re doing an entire city.’’
That may be why citywide rollouts have been so slow in coming. Fleishman said EarthLink’s project in Anaheim still encompasses just a few square miles. In Philadelphia, the vendor is still building test networks. In Tampa, wi-fi is available in the downtown core through a local company, Sago Networks.
The biggest free municipally run network is in St. Cloud, outside Orlando, which introduced a citywide system in March.
“Not enough systems are built yet and no one knows how many people will sign up for a fee service,’’ Fleishman said, summing up the current wi-fi free-for-all. “It’s not that the jury is still out. The trial hasn’t even started.’’
Kris Hundley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2996.
[Last modified September 6, 2006, 22:55:04]
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