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The Revolution Will be Wireless

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

April 4 -- Google took San Francisco. Earthlink won Seattle and is looking to take New York. So who will capture the lucrative wireless network that could likely blanket Santa Monica a year from now?

As City Hall's tech squad busily erects tiny antennas throughout Santa Monica that could signal the start of a wireless infrastructure revolution citywide, other City staff are booting-up a proposal that could slash prices for local consumers by having high-tech companies bid for control of the future system.

"We've put out some feelers and they've come back positive," said Jory Wolf, the City's chief information officer and primary architect for the City's fledgling wireless system, which he said could be expanded to cover all of Santa Monica by next year.

"A request for proposal is going out asking for public and private companies to bid on the contract to take over the assets," said Wolf. "If we don't get an offer we like, we are prepared to blanket the City ourselves."

Santa Monica is one of a handful of cities that have decided to fund "hot spots" -- zones where wireless access is available -- out of City coffers. The cost: approximately $42,000 so far.

Over the past few months, the City has began stitching together a series of free "Wi-Fi hot spots" or zones where wireless devices can access the internet as part of a program called "CityWi-Fi."

When users log on wirelessly from the new library, the Third Street Promenade and Virginia Avenue Park, they are instantly transported to a "CityWi-Fi" homepage, a jumping off-point into the sea of web information.

"So far it's being used quite heavily, so we think it's going to be a big hit," Wolf said of the program, which currently boasts about 500 people logging on per day.

City and business officials are heralding the new service as priceless for Santa Monicans and visitors alike.

"It's a free service, powered by the City, as we like to say," said Marivi Valcourt, marketing director for the Bayside District Corporation, which runs the Downtown, including the Promenade.

"Free Wi-Fi is just another way to attract people Downtown,” Valcourt said. “There's a lot of internet company workers here, as well as visitors and tourists who will appreciate the service."

There is an added advantage to having people go online in hot-zones such as the Promenade, Valcourt said. Every time someone signs on, the first page to come up is the City's Wi-Fi page, which business officials say is tantamount to free advertising for the City and local businesses.

And the three hotspots are likely just the beginning, said Wolf.

In addition to every new public project being prepared for "Wi-Fi" access, the City is also preparing the Civic Center, the Ken Edwards Community Center and the Santa Monica Pier for the service, Wolf said. Even the courtyard outside of City Hall will have wireless access so developers can go on-line while waiting in line.

"We've had internal discussion for a while on (wireless) hotspots, and we decided that we should keep erecting them because we can always sell them to other companies," said Wolf.

With Santa Monica officials in control so far of the City's expanding wireless system, City officials will be in a good bargaining position with outside companies to get a deal that would best benefit Santa Monicans and visitors alike, Wolf said.

City officials will likely request that the winning provider expand wireless systems throughout the city and reserve a portion of the bandwidth for City and emergency systems, Wolf said.

The City will also likely ask the provider to continue free wireless in select locations, such as the Third Street Promenade, and provide daily wireless access rates for visitors to the city and competitive monthly rates for local consumers, Wolf said.

Just how competitive?

"You could probably get $20 a month for a fixed service in the City," he said. That would be $10 less than what most people pay for the service currently through Verizon in Santa Monica, Wolf said.

In addition, the new citywide wireless network could likely affect other industries -- such as cable access.

"Wireless will drive down the prices on Digital Subscriber Line's (DSL) and wireless services," Wolf said. "You could theoretically abandon (Verizon) and switch to whomever runs the wireless system."

To remain a step ahead, Verizon is doing some blanketing of it's own locally.

The cable and phone giant is laying down an unknown amount of fiber cables that will one day, Verizon officials hope, bring video service into the home.

The effect that cities like Santa Monica, Seattle and San Francisco are having on the traditional media and internet landscape through wireless is part of the reason some states have begun enacting legislation to prohibit municipalities from building and providing free wireless network, Wolf said.

The state legislature of Pennsylvania is one such state, and it even had to make a special exemption for Philadelphia that was well on its well to building such a network.

In a day and age that technologies are coming and going faster than a computer computation, Wolf said it was important to note that wireless has "matured enough as a technology that we know it's going to be around a while."

Though making sure that the technology is compatible for all users is always a tough hurdle to overcome, the technology has matured enough to know it will be around, Wolf said.

While smaller and not the first, Santa Monica is working to install the best wireless possible, he said.

"Everyone's doing this," Wolf said. "We're going to make sure we do it right."

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