Providing free wireless Internet access at parks in Tampa's urban core allows residents and visitors to stay connected while enjoying the outdoors. The plan, announced earlier this month by Mayor Bob Buckhorn, places Tampa among the world's trailblazing cities that are using public-private partnerships to offer free connectivity to consumers. With so much business conducted online, accessing the Internet remotely should no longer be a luxury or a tool just for those who can afford it. Tampa's initiative will help bridge the digital divide and further establish it as a 21st century city.
By the end of 2014, plans call for Tampa's downtown and riverfront parks, including Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park and the Riverwalk, to have free Wi-Fi access. Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park also will be wired once renovations are complete. The project is funded by Bright House Networks and will allow users to connect with their laptops, smartphones and tablet computers for up to two hours a day. After that, non-Bright House customers can pay for extended service. The project is the brainchild of Buckhorn, who wants to attract young professionals to live, work and play downtown. In 2013, Buckhorn opened seven free Wi-Fi hot spots in city buildings, including City Hall and construction services. The move was designed to allow the public to conduct business in reception areas while awaiting service or attending council meetings.
As people increasingly rely on mobile access, cities around the world have responded by creating pockets of free public Wi-Fi access. Paris offers visitors more than 200 hot spots throughout the city. Sixteen public parks in New York City feature free wireless connections, and the city is poised to open 95 blocks of outdoor public Wi-Fi access in Harlem. In a partnership with Google, San Francisco will soon offer free Wi-Fi in 31 city parks.
Making Wi-Fi available in parks is not a rejection of nature or of the opportunity to escape electronic tethers. But it is an acknowledgment of the way modern society operates. With free public Wi-Fi, Curtis Hixon, for example, could soon truly become Tampa's living room, a place where students gather to study, community groups meet and families unwind. It is not hard to envision a day when Curtis Hixon could become akin to New York City's Bryant Park, an urban green space that fills daily with visitors while the city bustles around it.
Both the mayor and Bright House officials should be commended for bringing free connectivity options to the downtown area. But they shouldn't stop there. The city has many parks and recreation departments outside of its urban core that also would benefit from the service.