BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County has been conducting an experiment.
On Wednesday, county officials began testing a new technology that might someday improve data gathering and transferring, and not just for the county, but for local businesses and residents as well.
After more than a year of discussion, it was the first time the county got to try out a wireless, broadband computer system.
Taking baby steps with the technology, the past week's experiment connected the Hernando County Government Center in downtown Brooksville with the Hernando County Airport, south of the city, allowing secure access to the internal county computer system without using the existing cable network.
"We're just sending files back and forth, just to see how the system works," said Michael McHugh, the head of business development for the county.
The plan was to measure the quality of service, compared to fiber-optic cable connections, and determine how different conditions, such as stormy weather, would affect the service.
In a few weeks, officials will move on to Step 2, testing an Internet connection through the wireless network from one point to another, such as from the government center to a business or a residence.
"Potentially, this could be a mechanism so that we could have service to areas which are not served or are underserved (with Internet service)," McHugh said. "That's always been the impetus of what this project is about."
That would be a help to the county, especially at the fire station in Nobleton and at the county's landfill northwest of Brooksville, two locations that do not have cable service and that have struggled with the technology, he said.
County officials didn't start talking about wireless broadband service just for themselves, though. The idea first surfaced more than a year ago when McHugh, county Commissioner John Druzbick and others met to talk about infrastructure and other needs with the business community.
When they asked what businesses needed the county's help with, technology infrastructure was a top choice.
"It has become as critical, if not more critical, than roads or water," McHugh said. And for some businesses that rely heavily on technology, two or more forms of connection are a requirement.
"If one goes down" and there is no backup, he said, "their cash register stops ringing."
Druzbick said businesspeople have been very clear about the importance of duplication, speed and capacity in their technology needs.
"Technology now is not just a want, but a need," he said.
In addition to the benefits to the county and the business community, there are many residents in Hernando who are in areas too remote to get a cable connection, and this could give them a new option as well, McHugh said.
Once county officials recognized the myriad of benefits a wireless network could bring to the community, they sought companies interested in providing the service. Both a request for proposals and a request for qualifications were advertised. A few companies came to the pre-proposal meetings, but none ever submitted proposals.
Then, more recently, the county was approached by a Tampa company, Sago Networks. Sago officials wanted to show the county what they had to offer, so they agreed to set up the experiment that took place last week.
"It's nice that they expressed an interest in the county. They may have some solutions," McHugh said. "The fact that they're here is a good thing."
Druzbick said he's sorry that it took so long for the county to get something off the ground, but he is glad to see the wireless broadband issue moving forward.
"It's just exciting. It could really be one of those intangibles that really help attract business to the county," Druzbick said. "It could really make Hernando stand out."
Officials plan to meet Monday to talk about how the experiment worked and what to do next. The county does not have a contract with Sago, and officials have not decided how to handle securing a company to install a broadband network if they determine they want to pursue one.
The timing of learning about wireless networks is critical for the county. The county's contract with Bright House Networks ends at the end of September, and the county could face a bill as much as a quarter-million dollars higher to renew its service.
With a projected 2012-13 budget shortfall topping $7 million, officials say they want to have options, and establishing their own wireless network is one on the table.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.