It is no secret that local governments across the nation are tightening their budgetary belts and eagerly pursuing new sources of revenue. So it may seem strange that, in the current economic climate, some cities are beginning to offer free wireless Internet service to residents and visitors. Although the cities may not be making money on the service now, they are laying the groundwork for potential future revenue sources.
In the initial stages of building a wireless Internet access district, cities should assemble a team of city officials, local business owners and technology vendors to develop, design and build the project. Site selection is an important consideration for the team developing the wireless district. The best place for a wireless district is in a well-traveled area frequented by residents, tourists and business people because there it has the potential for getting the most use.
Developing a wireless Internet access district requires sensitivity to the needs of local business owners. For example, some restaurant owners may not be interested in having customers occupy tables for several hours just to surf the Internet. However, other owners may want customers to stay for long periods of time to consume more food and beverages while online.
To address those concerns, cities should consider limiting the time that a user is able to access the wireless service during a single session. Additionally, a Web portal that displays links to major downtown restaurants and other city attractions, along with entertainment schedules and addresses of popular shopping venues, can help generate revenue for local businesses.
Several components are required to build the infrastructure for wireless Internet service, including wireless access points and antennae to transmit and receive signals. Cities have to select an Internet service provider capable of handlingtraffic, and they have to install access control and security software to ensure that people can communicate securely using the wireless system.
To access the wireless network, residents and visitors must have 802.11b radio cards installed on their laptop computers or PDAs. The cards are available at most office supply stores for $80 to $90.
Long Beach, Calif., is one of the first cities in the nation to offer free wireless Internet access to residents and visitors. The idea to provide the service began late in 2001 during a meeting of the mayor's technology symposium, a brainstorming session conducted with a group of area technology leaders. The city decided to create a wireless district as a way to stimulate tourism and high-tech business growth downtown.
Long Beach officials worked with four technology companies — locally based G-Site Web Design and Consulting; locally based Development Tech; Everett, Wash.-based Intermec Technologies and Mountain View, Calif.-based Vernier Networks — to build the wireless network. The team installed transmitters along a four-block section of downtown that features several restaurants and shopping areas. The transmitters send radio signals that carry broadband Internet service provided by locally based Color Broadband. Once users open their browser windows, they are automatically connected to the Long Beach Web portal.
Launched in January, the Downtown Long Beach Wireless Hot Zone is available free to anyone who can access it. Several local businesses already have purchased banner advertisements on the portal. The city expects that additional revenue will be generated by attracting visitors and business people to use the network, thus increasing sales tax revenues gained through consumer traffic and purchases.
The author is the public information officer for Long Beach, Calif.