St. Petersburg wants citywide wireless Internet

Heading to the park? Don’t forget your laptop.

Sometime in the not-so-distant future, the city plans to offer wireless Internet access to all residents for a fee. That means anyone with a wireless card in their computer could tap into e-mail or search Google, both indoors and out.

“That’s really where the world is heading,” said Mayor Rick Baker. “Soon, every city is going to need to offer wireless service in order to be competitive.”

The city plans to solicit bids for companies to set up a wireless network in the next few months. How the system works and the cost to residents will be determined by who bids on the contract, said Muslim Gadiwalla, the city’s chief information officer.

Wireless access has been popping up in communities across the country. It works with transmitters that beam radio signals on unregulated frequencies short distances to devices such as notebook computers, cellular phones and personal digital assistants. Monthly service fees can range anywhere from $30 to $70.

It’s increasingly common to see wireless hot spots at coffee shops, hotels and restaurants, including Starbucks and McDonald’s. But citywide networks are still relatively uncommon.

Dunedin was one of the first Florida cities to move towards a citywide Wi-Fi network. They hired St. Petersburg-based Citi WiFi to provide subscriber-only wireless Internet service last May.

James Guerin, Dunedin’s information technology director, said about 20 percent of the city is now covered by the network. Another 60 percent will be added by July, with the remaining 20 percent by October.

Guerin said a dispute with Progress Energy delayed the network. The power company initially refused to allow Citi WiFi to place transmitters on their utility poles but relented after state legislators intervened, Guerin said.

There are now 127 subscribers to Dunedin’s service, which costs $24.95 a month for residents. Business subscriptions start at $49.95.

The reception has been enthusiastic so far, Guerin said.

“The people at the marina absolutely love it,” he said. “Now they have broadband access right on their boats.”

Not every locality charges residents for the service. Last month, St. Cloud became the first Florida municipality to actually create a citywide wireless network and offer the service for free. However, residents of the Orlando suburb have complained about dead spots and weak signals, forcing engineers to retool the system.

Google Inc. and EarthLink Inc. are teaming up to build a wireless network for San Francisco. EarthLink’s faster offering would cost $20 per month, while Google would provide a slower, free service financed by advertising.

Baker said he’s been considering the creation of a wireless network for the past two years but purposefully held back to see how other cities fared. “We wanted to see the deals that other cities got to make sure we could get the best deal for our city,” Baker said.

City officials hope to receive bids for the contract by June or July. If everything goes according to plan, a network could be in place by late this year or early 2007.

City Council member Rick Kriseman said he hopes the city moves quickly. As technology improves, a wireless network becomes an increasingly important tool to lure businesses.

“I think it would put us on the map,” Kriseman said. “From an economic development standpoint, it really makes us competitive.”

By Carrie Weimar.

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