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Arlington Closer to Becoming Urban WiFi Zone

Residents would be able to access a countywide system for free in parks,

Imagine being able to pay your bills online while watching your daughter’s softball game. Or filing a report for work as you sip a smoothie at any outdoor café in the county.

By next summer, residents will have the luxury of shopping online, checking email or updating their MySpace accounts from any public park, library, community center or central square in Arlington for free. And in the following months the county will become one of the first full-fledged, urban WiFi zones in the nation.

The county government has selected the finalists to build a countywide wireless network that will turn all of Arlington into an integrated electronic town square. When completed it will revolutionize the way companies conduct business in Arlington and how residents spend their free time, liberating them from the constraints of offices and homes.

“We’re becoming more and more Internet-dependent, and to have it with you anywhere you go gives you significant freedom,” said County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman.

CURRENTLY, A PATCHWORK of cafes across the county, including Panera and the Euro Market in Courthouse, offer free wireless Internet, and others like Starbucks provide the service for a fee.

In December 2004, the county government began experimenting with wireless “hotspots”: the Central Library became such a zone to mitigate the over-crowing in the computer lab, and a wireless district was created surrounding the Courthouse Plaza last August.

Those projects served as a laboratory to test how many people would take advantage of a free wireless hotspot. The response has been overwhelming, with many county staff working outside on nice days or reading online while they eat lunch on the steps of the Courthouse, said Rob Billingsley, the county’s IT procurement manager.

The county decided to create a series of free WiFi zones in the county’s parks, community centers and public plazas, and put out a request for proposals from private companies.

The wireless providers responded that they were also interested in building a countywide network that residents could access for a fee in their homes and in stores.

After reviewing the applications, the county has whittled the list down to a handful of finalists and will soon begin negotiations. Billingsley hopes to cement a deal in September, but admits the process could take several months.

The private contractor will build and own the wireless “mesh” network, at a projected cost of between $5 and $10 million; the county would not contribute any funding to the project.

The company that wins the contract will likely install close to a thousand small boxes on the sides of street lights, which connect via radio signals, creating the wireless “mesh” network.

While the county has yet to negotiate the terms of the agreement, Arlington officials expect that anyone with a laptop and standard wireless card should be able to surf for free in public spaces — though the connectivity will be slower than the cable access people have in their homes.

For a monthly fee, likely to be in the $20 range, residents will have the option of logging onto the wireless system in their back yards, cars and in shops.

Each signal has a two-block range, so there is no guarantee that every household will be able to access the WiFi network. Hills or tall trees sometimes obfuscate the wireless signals.

“Foliage can thwart these signals, so you might get reception in the winter but not in the summer,” Billingsley said.

Because of these obstacles, and the possibility that a wireless connection might not penetrate every room in the house, county officials do not expect the system to make obsolete existing home providers like Comcast and Verizon. But anyone who lives next to a signal would likely not need an additional service, Billingsley said.

COUNTY OFFICIALS BELIEVE that the wireless network will be a key asset that further proves Arlington is on the cutting edge of technology. Anaheim, Calif., in June became the first municipality in the country with a fully-functional WiFi network, and Arlington is one of only a handful of localities in the final stages of negotiations with private providers.

“It’s a real community amenity and makes us more attractive,” said County Board member Jay Fisette. “It tells people we are constantly growing and changing.”

The biggest boon of having the wireless system will be the increased mobility for employees and residents. The network will be a big selling point to companies debating whether to open in Arlington or neighboring areas, county officials said.

“It’s really useful if workers want to have a meeting offsite, or if you just want to go work in the shade,” said Charlotte Franklin, director of the business investment group for the county’s economic development office.

Instant connectivity to the Internet will boost the productivity of the county staff, by allowing building and construction inspectors to access data and programs on-site, said Christopher David, Arlington’s chief technology officer.

In the future the network could be used for more mundane purposes, such as detecting when vending machines are empty or alerting people that their parking meters are about to expire.

A widespread wireless network will also enable emergency officials to more quickly disseminate information in times of severe weather or in the wake of a terrorist attack.

“It’s important to be able to send a message to folks to let them know what’s going on,” said Bob Griffin, head of the Office of Emergency Management. “It adds a new layer of alerting the public that we don’t have.”