BROOKSVILLE — Mike McHugh wants Hernando County to become planet Earth's next WiFi hot spot.
He is not just talking about the heart of Spring Hill or Brooksville. McHugh wants high-speed Internet service available in the middle of Withlacoochee State Forest, at the county's airport — even in tiny Istachatta.
Currently, wireless service, making high-speed Internet connections possible, is just a dream for many in the far-flung corners of Hernando County. But as desirable as such service might be to techno-hungry residents, high-speed capability is essential for businesses that rely heavily on the World Wide Web.
That's why McHugh, Hernando County's business development manager, is interested in the concept of an emerging technology called WiMax. On Tuesday, he will ask the County Commission to allow him to seek proposals for a public-private partnership to build a WiMax operation countywide, for which a provider would seek subscribers.
"What we really want to do with this is basically go wall to wall in this county, making (wireless Internet service) available to all of our residents, businesses and government offices," McHugh said. "We're not trying to get rid of Bright House (the primary local cable TV and Internet provider) or get rid of AT&T. We want more options for our people."
Such a system could allow a hospital billing agent who tele-commutes from one of the most rural parts of the county to interface with the hospital computer system from home. A Tampa businessman could participate in a televised staff meeting from a folding chair on the beach at Pine Island.
Law enforcement officers could have Internet usage even if they are pursuing someone in the middle of the state forest. The Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative and the Hernando County Utilities Department could someday read meters from their headquarters without having to send workers into the field.
McHugh said the possibilities are endless.
Many portions of the county simply cannot get high-speed service that is available primarily through a fiber-optic network. Providing the cable in rural areas of the county isn't cost effective for companies, so many people must rely on satellite or sluggish dial-up services for their Internet connection.
In October, the County Commission gave McHugh the green light to form a task force to begin to address the actions Hernando County needed to take to make itself more attractive to new businesses — businesses that could diversify the county's economy beyond home building.
The need for technology improvements quickly floated to the surface, largely fueled by the experience of Charles Bennett, who brought his international business to Hernando County a couple of years ago. Bennett, whose company, Zymol Enterprises, provides premium automobile cleaning and waxing products, has been frustrated by his inability to get cost-effective, high-speed Internet service to his business or his home, north of Brooksville.
WiMax operates like wireless Internet services used in homes and businesses, but with a much wider range, up to 30 miles per fixed station. Under the proposal commissioners will consider Tuesday, the county would offer its own facilities as places to set up the WiMax equipment as a main component in the county's partnership. There are no current plans to commit tax dollars to the effort.
The proposal would set the first site for a station at the Hernando County Airport, where there have been some Internet connection issues, officials have said. The city of Brooksville may also participate and provide some locations for the WiMax network, according to McHugh's memo to the commission.
The hope is that the county would save money by not needing some of the existing broadband services that it now purchases. Additional revenue might also be available to the county if an arrangement could be reached to collect some form of royalties from the WiMax firm for the use of county facilities, McHugh said.
He explained that the move is not aimed at competing with other Internet providers, but to entice a private provider to come to the county to offer service from one end of Hernando to the other.
"It was time for us to take the lead rather than just let market forces dictate it," McHugh said. "This puts the county in a position of strength."
Commissioner John Druzbick, a member of the business development task force, called the WiMax idea "phenomenal."
"It's the next generation," he said. "We've gone from hard wire to fiber optics to wireless."
With the WiMax service available, "it's prime time that we get out and get moving into it," Druzbick said.
McHugh has high hopes for the impact such an improvement would have on business development opportunities. He said that any extra service that Hernando can offer a prospective new business is worth going after.
"You know, you never lose a business locating into this county by having too much technology," he said. "It's always the other way."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.