St. Louis to get citywide Wi-Fi

Friday, May 4, 2007

The service will begin in three phases with a goal of having downtown service available this summer.

ST. LOUIS -- Internet users may be able to unplug as soon as this summer with efforts under way for a citywide Wi-Fi network.

St. Louis and AT&T Inc. are working to create the network, which will provide wireless connections to the Internet at broadband speeds. Residents and visitors to the city will receive 20 free hours of access a month.

The service will begin in three phases with a goal of having downtown service available this summer. After an evaluation of downtown service is completed, the second phase should take about a year with plans to provide the network to about 80 percent of the city. A citywide Wi-Fi network should be in place in 2010, said John Sondag, a vice president with AT&T.

"There aren't that many cities that have what St. Louis is going to get," he said.

But the network won't mean unlimited access to Wi-Fi everywhere. The system is primarily designed for use outdoors and won't penetrate deep into buildings, he said. Internet users must have computers with wireless capabilities to use the system and can buy devices to boost the signal for indoor use, he said.

Sondag said industrial areas or spots along the riverfront likely won't pick up a signal. And while San Antonio-based AT&T is giving the free access each month, the company is hoping people will opt to spend more for more time and faster Internet connections. However, people in the city can get the free time regardless of who their usual carrier is, he said.

AT&T is spending about $6 million on the network, and the city is paying for the electricity and allowing the company to install transmitters, less than one-square-foot in size, around the city, primarily up high on street lights, he said.

The network in St. Louis will include a frequency for municipal use. In time, that could result in practical applications like remote meter reading or the ability to monitor cameras from a distance on police cars or in high-crime areas, if the city decides it is interested in those types of technology, he said.

The benefit to AT&T, he said, is that it will create a Wi-Fi network that provides more value for its customers, should help attract new customers and allow the telecommunications company to sell wholesale services to other providers.

AT&T also doesn't have an exclusive. Other providers can negotiate with the city if they want to put in a Wi-Fi network. One company, 02Connect, already offers a free network in parts of the city.

Alderman Matt Villa, a Democrat who represents parts of southeast St. Louis, has been part of talks on the project as chair of the public utilities committee.

"I think the key for us in the city is that as the technology evolves, we didn't want to put out $8 million or $10 million in costs, and then have the technology pass you by," he said.

At Washington Ave. Post, a coffee shop and business service center downtown, student Caroline Hackmeyer, 29, was taking advantage of the business' free Wi-Fi. She used her laptop computer to check her e-mail and do her homework while snacking on a fruit smoothie and a cookie. Many businesses provide wireless hot spots to customers, or places where they can use wireless connections, as a way to attract and retain their patrons.

She thought the city's plan with AT&T sounded like a good one, but also had a wait-and-see attitude.

"It'll be interesting to see how it's managed, if 20 hours is enough," she said. She had some reservations that the city had agreed to the network with just one company, but liked that the agreement wasn't exclusive. And she noted, with the amount of time people use the Internet, more free Wi-Fi time is becoming more desirable. "It would be really nice to have it free all the time," she said.

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