TAMPA — City Hall is seeking a private-sector partner to bring free Wi-Fi to downtown Tampa's parks.
"Wi-Fi will be a draw," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Tuesday, and not just for visitors. "I want people of all ages and backgrounds to come downtown and be able to work and play at the same time."
As outlined in a request for proposals, a vendor would make free, outdoor wireless Internet access available along the Riverwalk, as well as in parks such as Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, Lykes Gaslight Square Park and Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park.
So what's in it for the company?
For one thing, access to city property for its transmission equipment.
"They need our infrastructure," Buckhorn said. "That's the way this makes sense. We allow a provider to use our poles or to erect antennas on our buildings to provide, to whatever degree possible, a blanket around the city. In return for that access what we are hoping for is free Wi-Fi in certain areas, largely centered around downtown and the waterfront."
City officials believe that vendors could help support the free Wi-Fi by charging for it in other areas of the city or through online advertising. Proposals are due July 30.
If successful, adding free Wi-Fi to downtown parks would build on a city project this year that created seven free Wi-Fi hot spots at City Hall, the Police Department and in other city offices.
Tampa isn't alone in its quest for free outdoor Wi-Fi.
In March, Santa Clara, Calif., launched what officials there said was the nation's first program to provide free outdoor Wi-Fi for an entire community as part of an effort to upgrade electric meters.
There, the local electric utility is installing advanced meters that can be read using wireless technology. The same equipment carries a separate channel for public Wi-Fi.
"That's pretty cool," Buckhorn said of the Santa Clara initiative. "We haven't talked to (Tampa Electric), but I would imagine that the providers who would be at the cutting edge of this may incorporate those types of things into their response back to us."
Still, even Santa Clara officials say there are caveats. For one, while information from the electric meters is encrypted, the Wi-Fi service will be provided on a separate, unencrypted channel. Also, trees and buildings can block the signal. Higher-powered laptops work better than smartphones and tablets.
Elsewhere, the history of city-sponsored Wi-Fi has been rocky.
In 2008, Earthlink announced it would pull the plug on its $17 million citywide Wi-Fi network in Philadelphia.
The reason? The company couldn't come to terms on transferring the assets to the city of Philadelphia or a local nonprofit. A key question, never resolved, was who would pay the maintenance costs, which could have run millions of dollars a year.
Consequently, the city's request for proposals says City Hall does not want to get into the Wi-Fi business. Instead, it wants an experienced provider that can independently own and operate a Wi-Fi network for at least 10 years.
"What we've learned over the last five or six years is there were some cities who tried to do it themselves and failed miserably," Buckhorn said. "I'd much rather use the private sector's expertise and just hitchhike on their existing infrastructure and their ability to get it done."