The city of Toledo could become the first major city in Ohio to have wireless Internet access citywide under a proposal presented yesterday by Mayor Carty Finkbeiner.
A leading potential bidder is EarthLink, which operates the wireless or "wi-fi" network in Philadelphia, although Buckeye CableSystem, Inc., AT&T, and others are expected to bid for the citywide license.
Mr. Finkbeiner, who has boasted of Toledo's 2005 designation by Intel Corp. as the fifth "most-unwired" city in the nation, said his administration has distributed a request for proposals (RFP) for providers who could make wireless Internet service available throughout the city's 88 square miles.
City officials said the wireless system would be as secure as Internet access obtained through phone lines or broadband cable.
The RFP seeks bidders willing to make the expected $10 million investment in infrastructure in return for a license to be branded as "Wireless Toledo."
The mayor said the contract would not cost taxpayers a penny, but would provide plenty of benefits: free wireless service to city agencies, such as police and fire departments; free wireless access in certain public buildings and outdoor areas; and discounted wireless service for low-income people. Most people would pay an undetermined fee to use the service.
Perhaps most important of all, Toledo would gain the distinction of being on the cutting edge of cities with wireless communications technology.
Tom Waniewski, director of resource development for Boys & Girls Clubs of Toledo, and the founder of Access Toledo, an Internet provider now owned by Buckeye CableSystem, compared wireless capability to the river and rail transportation that attracted pioneers in the 1800s.
"This is telling today's pioneers that we have a great new transportation system. Let the pioneering resume," Mr. Waniewski said.
Aggie Dahar, a small business representative with the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce, said wireless access in Toledo would be a boon to small businesses, which will allow them to close deals, submit bids, and get information fast whether in their offices or out and about.
Toledo Fire Chief Michael Bell and Police Chief Michael Navarre both said the system will make maps, live video, and criminal records information available to firefighters and officers in their vehicles.
Proposed bidders are asked to respond by Feb. 20. The winner would be expected to have 90 percent coverage of the city within six months of signing a contract.
The 14-page document tells potential bidders they can use the city's traffic signal posts for relay equipment needs, but they may have to pay rent.
Patsy Scott, the city's director of communications and technology department, said the winner of the contract would have an advantage over any future wireless contractors because they would be recognized as the city's municipal wireless service.
Buckeye CableSystem, which along with The Blade is owned by Block Communications Inc., already provides high-speed and broadband Internet access through its cable network. In addition, the company provides wi-fi access at dozens of "hot spot" locations in Toledo, including 22 libraries.
Mr. Finkbeiner said the project started moving after he read an article last fall in Governing magazine about Philadelphia's information director, who had helped that city usher in citywide wi-fi. Philadelphia signed a contract with EarthLink in February, 2006, to manage Wireless Philadelphia.
Todd Davies, a city economic development specialist, said EarthLink is interested in the Toledo market, but he said other companies are expected to respond to the RFP.
He said the wireless network would make fast Internet speeds available to families that don't have high-speed telephone or broadband cable connections in their homes.
"When we talk about the lower income we're really talking about the children who need to do research, do their homework. They need access," he said. He said dial-up access to the Internet is so slow that many sites effectively are off-limits.
Ms. Scott said the cost to a regular subscriber is likely to be $20 to $25 per month, and half that to people who qualify for the low-income discount. It would be free in public housing developments.
According to Mr. Finkbeiner, Toledo would be the first major city in Ohio entirely covered by a wi-fi network.
Wi-fi, short for "wireless fidelity," uses a radio frequency to carry Internet signals to laptops and hand-held computers. There are perhaps 100 wi-fi "hot spots" in the Toledo area, in McDonald's restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, and libraries. Although there is often a fee for use, some businesses offer free access.
Buckeye Cable has about 40 wireless nodes, said Tom Dawson, Buckeye spokesman. He said he anticipates that Buckeye will submit a proposal to provide the city with wireless coverage, but he questioned whether the city was facilitating a competitor to Buckeye. "We spent four years and $180 million upgrading our cable system," Mr. Dawson said.
The RFP states that "although some indoor users may be able to connect to the system, the service is not intended to compete with commercially available Internet service and should not replace existing home or business Internet access."
However, Joe Jensen, chief technical officer for Buckeye, said whoever wins the contract is going to have to try to sell services to recoup its investment.
"Giving away services for free isn't going to finance a venture like this," Mr. Jensen said. "We have a number of hot spots around the city. We already provide some track record on how much usage there is on those hot spots. People do use it, but it pales in comparison to how much people use it at home or in the office."
Recovering its investment, which he predicted would be between $10 million and $15 million, will be for the successful bidder "the real challenge that already is apparent in San Francisco, San Jose, Philadelphia, and all the other cities that are trying to do this," Mr. Jensen said.
Intel Corp. in 2005 ranked Toledo the fifth "most-unwired" city in the U.S. after Seattle; San Francisco; Austin, Texas; and Portland, Oregon. City officials believe that is a good thing for attracting technology and youth-oriented businesses that would reverse the area's so-called "brain drain."
Science writer Jenni Laidman contributed to this report.
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