"If we don't pursue this [getting government funded Wi-FI for downtown Phoenix], we are shooting ourselves in the foot."


Wi-Fi push aims to make Phoenix downtown a hot spot

Ginger D. Richardson The Arizona Republic May. 9, 2006 12:00 AM

What started as a trend in small cities has morphed into a full-blown technology race, with some of the nation's largest municipalities rushing to provide their residents with cheap or even free wireless Internet.

Here in the Valley, Tempe and Scottsdale were the first to offer the so-called Wi-Fi service. But now, Phoenix is getting in on the action, with a plan that would bring the technology to the downtown area.

"While it's an amenity now, I think it will be an expected piece of infrastructure in the not-too-distant future," said Brian Kearney, chief executive officer of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership. "If we don't pursue this, we are shooting ourselves in the foot."

The technology, which allows users to surf the Web at high speeds without pesky cables, is still relatively new. But large cities, from Philadelphia to Chicago, are viewing it as increasingly important as they look to gain a competitive edge in attracting residents, business and tourism dollars.

Kearney's group, which is in charge of furthering downtown's revitalization, is taking the lead on the Phoenix effort. The partnership hopes to make Phoenix's central business district, a 90-square block area bordered by Seventh Street, 3rd Avenue, Fillmore Street and the railroad tracks, a wireless hot spot by early next year.

If it succeeds, residents will be able to log on to the Internet from any public place in downtown. Currently, the technology is available for free only in a few select locations throughout the city, such as Burton Barr Central Library and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

The downtown Phoenix effort is considered especially important, given the amount of money the city is investing in its core. More than $1 billion in public money is being pumped into the downtown area known as Copper Square via high-profile projects such as the new Arizona State University campus and the Phoenix Convention Center. Although those projects are expected to help transform downtown into a hub of activity, officials still fear they will need more than just buildings to make downtown a cool gathering place.

Wireless Internet will help by giving residents another way to linger over their coffee or lunch.

That sounds good to Phoenix resident Michael Kurutz, who was online at the Fair Trade Cafe Gallery, near Roosevelt Street and Central Avenue.

"This is the modern age; the physical office has become much less important," Kurutz said.

Staying competitive

Wireless Internet has become the hot topic at municipal conferences around the country, analysts say. In some cases, cities plan to offer the service to spur economic-development efforts; in others, cities simply have come to view the service as something residents are entitled to, like water or trash pickup.

Craig Aaron, communications director for Free Press, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit organization that favors city-provided wireless Internet service, said his organization is tracking efforts to develop Wi-Fi in more than 400 cities and towns in the nation.

"It's becoming a public utility that's as important as gas or electricity," Aaron said. "But there's also the feeling that 'if we don't get on this train, if we don't offer a competitive environment, then we aren't going to attract the kind of business, investment or entrepreneurial activity that we want.' "

Last fall, Philadelphia became one of the first large municipalities in the nation to announce plans for a border-to-border wireless service.

San Francisco has offered up what is probably the country's most controversial wireless effort. Officials plan to build a free network across the city for all residents.

In the Valley, Scottsdale and Tempe already have the technology up and running, and Gilbert and Chandler are working with Tempe's provider to create a seamless network over 187 square miles stretching across all three communities. Mesa is also looking into the issue.

Phoenix City Council members have also directed staff to find a way to offer Wi-Fi at senior and community centers. The effort, which is considered separate from the downtown proposal, will likely take time to implement. However, plans are under way to outfit all public libraries with the service.

Unanswered questions

The partnership, which is working with the city and ASU on the downtown effort, is seeking a consultant who can make recommendations on how to set up the wireless Internet network.

As a result, there are still many unanswered questions about how the system would work, including how much, if anything, it would cost.

The partnership is considering offering a service similar to Tempe's network. There, wireless Internet is provided via a private company; users create an account and are entitled to free access in limited quantities in certain areas, such as Tempe Town Lake. Those who want to connect more frequently or in other zones pay a subscription fee.

The partnership must also navigate existing hot spots.

For example, ASU, as part of its preparations for the new Phoenix campus, is already prepping two downtown buildings for wireless technology. One is the 411 building, at Central Avenue and Polk Street. The other is the Park Place building at 500 N. Third St. The technology is already in place at the ASU Mercado building at Fifth and Monroe Streets.

In addition, Phoenix is moving ahead with plans to provide wireless Internet service in the public areas of City Hall and the Phoenix Convention Center, which is wrapping up the first phase of a $600 million expansion.

Those services differ from the partnership's effort in that they are internal networks, meaning users have to be inside one of the buildings to use the wireless service. The partnership, on the other hand, wants its network to cover public outdoor areas.

But they will still have to figure out how to set up the new service so it doesn't interfere with the existing technology.

"Obviously, there is still a lot that needs to be determined," said Rob Edwards, the Downtown Phoenix Partnership's director of economic development. "But I do think we have an advantage in that we aren't the first ones to try to do this. We're learning from the bugs that have cropped up elsewhere."

Whatever the system, it will help improve the vibrancy of downtown, Phoenix attorney Sal Rivera said.

"I have been invited to informal meetings over coffee, and people are always saying, 'Let's go to this place because they have wireless Internet there,' " Rivera said. "I think people will gravitate toward the areas that have it, and I think it's going to become a necessary service."

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