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Tampa looks to expand downtown WiFi access

TAMPA — When Eric and Larisa Hawk moved to the SkyPoint high-rise in downtown Tampa last year, they looked forward to taking a laptop and working while their son David played at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.

"But we can't," Eric said.

That's because the riverfront park, while a lively place for kids and dogs, is a dead zone for free, publicly accessible WiFi.

That galls Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who places a high priority on attracting young families and creative professionals to Tampa.

"Intellectual capital is mobile, and some of these people work from home," he said. "They could just as easily work from Curtis Hixon park. But they've got to have the tools to be able to do that."

So now the city is launching a two-part project to expand downtown WiFi coverage in a handful of key spots.

The first, cheaper phase will create free WiFi hot spots at about a half-dozen city buildings, including the main municipal office building, City Council chambers and the lobbies of the Police Department and construction services center.

Those hot spots should be in place in the next four to eight weeks. The cost will be about $9,500 for equipment and installation and an estimated $5,000 a year in Internet and software maintenance charges.

"That's done as a convenience to our customers," Buckhorn said. "I want people who are down here to have the ability to do business while they're here."

The second, more expensive phase will be to work with telecommunications companies like Bright House Networks and Verizon to bring free WiFi to a small handful of popular public spaces such as Curtis Hixon, the Riverwalk and Lykes Gaslight Square Park.

"Ideally, what you would like to see is people hanging out on Curtis Hixon lawn, with their laptop, being able to work while at the same time they enjoy the Riverwalk and the water," Buckhorn said. "That's a far more expensive endeavour."

It also can have a high degree of difficulty. In 2008, Earthlink announced it was shutting down a $17 million citywide WiFi network it created in Philadelphia because it couldn't come to terms with that city or a local non-profit on transferring the assets. One sticking point was who would pay to maintain the system, a cost that could have amounted to millions of dollars a year.

Tampa officials and Bright House have begun preliminary talks, both sides say, but there's no estimates yet of potential costs or other details. Bright House already has two WiFi hot spots inside the park (Bright House customers can sign on as part of their service; non-customers pay a small fee to do so). Buckhorn aims to bring free WiFi to the park, "but there may be some middle ground there."

Buckhorn says he hopes it takes no more than a couple of months. That, at least, would silence a couple of aides in their 20s who remind him virtually every week how lame the city's WiFi access is, how even his office lacks WiFi and how they have to go somewhere else if they need to work on their laptops.

"I hear it, and they're right," he said.

Now you might ask: Didn't telecommunications companies spend millions of dollars before last year's Republican National Convention to improve digital connectivity in downtown Tampa?

The answer is yes, though the improvements didn't create publicly accessible WiFi hotspots where Buckhorn wants them.

For example, AT&T spent $15 million on nearly 500 upgrades around the Tampa Bay area, including more than 200 WiFi hot spots. But the access points added for the convention didn't include any that "would be considered leveraged in outdoor areas," company spokeswoman Michele Money-Carson said in an e-mail.

As a result, Curtis Hixon and Lykes Gaslight Square don't have AT&T WiFi, though that's no snub of Tampa. The company hasn't put WiFi in any parks outside of New York and California.

Buckhorn's push for WiFi comes amid a couple of other technology initiatives at the city. Last week, the City Council approved the promotion of Russell Haupert as the city's new director of technology and innovation.

Along with looking at WiFi, the department has a big project on its hands: implementing the joint city-county Enterprise Resource Planning software program, which will support administrative functions like budgeting, accounting, procurement and human resources. The ERP is meant to replace out-of-date and expensive-to-maintain systems while saving money and maximizing economies of scale. If successful, city officials have said, the partnership would be the second of its kind in the nation.

Buckhorn expects implementing the ERP will take up most of the technology and innovation department's time over the next six to eight months.

"This is the first big joint venture that we've done with the county on practical governance," he said. "It's important that we get that done and get it done right."

Information from National Public Radio was used in this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403.

Tampa looks to expand downtown WiFi access 01/12/13 [Last modified: Saturday, January 12, 2013 10:59pm]

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