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Free Wi-Fi service coming to downtown Tampa parks by year's end

TAMPA — It's been more than a year since Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he wanted to bring free, public Wi-Fi service to the Riverwalk, Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and other public spaces in downtown Tampa.

On Tuesday, Buckhorn said it will be there by the end of 2014.

Expanding wireless access has been a priority for the mayor, who wants to attract tech-savvy young professionals to Tampa.

"We know that these millennials could just as easily be writing code here in Curtis Hixon park as in Mumbai," Buckhorn said at a news conference. "For us to be competitive, for us to be a place that they want to be a part of, we had to create an environment that would work for them."

So last June, the city put out a request for proposals to provide free, outdoor wireless Internet access in public areas of downtown. Bright House was one of two companies that responded, the other being Communications Management Associates of Altamonte Springs.

Once an estimated 50 to 100 Wi-Fi access points are installed and activated around the park, the Bright House service will provide free Wi-Fi for up to two hours per day or 1 gigabyte per month. After that, non-Bright House customers can buy additional service. Bright House says its existing high-speed data customers will have full-time, full-speed access at no extra charge.

The service will not have advertisements — "there will be no popups on it," Buckhorn said — and will allow any Wi-Fi-enabled laptop computer, tablet or smartphone to connect to the Internet. It will cover all of the Riverwalk, Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, Water Works Park and Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park.

Once the city finishes its redevelopment of Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park in 18 months to two years, the service will be available there, too.

As the result of months of discussions, the planned service will come at no cost to the city, though Bright House will spend about $1 million in capital and operating costs to create it, according to Bright House Networks chief network officer and senior vice president Craig Cowden.

For Bright House, the project is part of a larger effort to upgrade data service for its high-speed Internet customers. To do that, the company has created more than 30,000 hot spots throughout Central Florida and more than 250,000 nationwide.

"This will coincide with (and) complement the last four years of aggressive Wi-Fi buildout that Bright House has done across the entire Central Florida region," Cowden said. "We recognize that we're in a mobile society today. People want to live and work and play in the communities that they live in. They don't want to be restricted to the household. That's why this is … an important and strategic relationship with the city of Tampa."

Still, providing limited amounts of free Wi-Fi service to non-Bright House users is rare, company executives said. Winter Park has a park where the company has done something similar, but they said they have nothing else on the scale of the Tampa project.

Increasingly, cities like New York and San Francisco are looking to provide residents and visitors with free Wi-Fi in parks and public spaces as a quality-of-life amenity like a dog park or bike trail. Last year, Tampa spent $9,500 to create seven free Wi-Fi hot spots at City Hall, the Police Department and in other city offices.

"As we talk about making the river the center of everything that we do," Buckhorn said, "this will be an amenity that will encourage people … to stroll the Riverwalk and sit at the benches and look across at the minarets and use their laptops."

Richard Danielson can be reached (813) 226-3403, danielson@tampabay.com or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.

Free Wi-Fi service coming to downtown Tampa parks by year's end 05/06/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 6, 2014 10:22pm]
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