TAMPA — When City Hall put out a call for companies to bring free Wi-Fi to the Riverwalk and downtown Tampa, two companies responded.
One, Bright House Networks, is a big telecommunications player that has installed tens of thousands of Wi-Fi hot spots from Central Florida to California.
The other, Communications Management Associates of Altamonte Springs, specializes in what's known as "small cell technology" — using perhaps 12 micro towers or distributed antenna systems to cover the area typically served by one standard-sized cell tower.
At this point, Tampa is thinking big, not small.
"We're negotiating with Bright House," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Tuesday. "Bright House was clearly the more superior bid."
What the city asked for were proposals to provide free, outdoor wireless Internet access along the Riverwalk, as well as in parks such as Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, Lykes Gaslight Square Park and Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park.
In its response, Bright House proposed to create free Wi-Fi service in one of three areas along the Riverwalk: either at its northern end, in its center or at its southern end. Inside that area, visitors could get a limited amount of free access — 30 minutes per day, tops.
"The service provided will be limited to casual use, but an optional pay-per-use service will be available for visitors for extended periods of use or to upgrade their service speed," the company's proposal said. Bright House's existing high-speed data customers would have full-time, full-speed access at no extra charge.
The city has not issued a formal notice that it intends to award a contract, Buckhorn said. Rather, he said talks are focused on how many parks would be included and what Bright House wants out of the arrangement.
Buckhorn said he has asked for "pretty much all" the downtown parks, but he at least wants free Wi-Fi at Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park, Curtis Hixon and Riverfront Park — parks along the southern, central and northern sections of the Riverwalk.
"Those are the ones that would be ideal," he said. "I would prefer that the entire Riverwalk be available to the public free, but I also recognize that there's a cost for Bright House associated with that."
Bright House spokesman Joe Durkin said the talks are aimed at working out details on access in the areas to be served.
"It's something they're discussing and will see if they can work out," he said. As it stands, he noted, Bright House's high-speed data customers already have no-extra-charge access to more than 200,000 hot spots nationwide that Bright House has or provides through reciprocal agreements with other companies.
Expanding wireless access has been a priority for Buckhorn, who says the young professionals he wants to attract to Tampa expect to have it. Early this year, the city spent $9,500 to create seven free Wi-Fi hot spots at City Hall, the Police Department and in other city offices.
In exchange for creating free Wi-Fi hot spots, the city has offered free access to public property for the vendor's transmission equipment. (Communications Management Associates proposed to lease city assets to data carriers for small cell sites. The carriers would pay for the leases, generating revenue the city could use to advance its Wi-Fi strategy along the river.)
Tampa officials also have said vendors could help support the free Wi-Fi by charging for it in other areas of the city or through online advertising.
Other cities are taking different approaches. This spring, Santa Clara, Calif., launched a program to provide free outdoor Wi-Fi citywide through an effort to upgrade electric meters. The local electric utility is installing advanced meters that can be read using wireless technology. The meters also carry a separate channel for public Wi-Fi, though trees and buildings can block the signal.
Buckhorn said he hopes to reach an agreement in Tampa by the end of the year. "I think we'll get most of the way there."