January 26, 2006

Wireless grid being tuned up

Kyle Stock  /  Post and Courier

Free Internet available to peninsula starting March 31, a little later than planned

The city of Charleston's free wireless Internet grid will open to the public March 31, later than the New Year's start date originally planned, as the contractors building the network take time to fine-tune it.

Widespread Access, a Mount Pleasant telecom company that is building the wireless fidelity, or Wi-Fi, grid, said Wednesday that most of the infrastructure is in place and the network is being tested by focus groups.

Sam Staley, president of Widespread Access, was on the windblown roof of the Gaillard Auditorium Wednesday, putting the finishing touches on a signal receiver. "Everything is going great," Staley said. "The bottom line is we prefer to make a good impression and make sure it's the best network we can create. A lot of cities kind of rush into this, and we don't want to go down the road we've seen a lot of them go down."

Charleston officials solicited bids in June for the airborne Internet cloud. In September, it picked a proposal by Widespread Access and Charleston-based Evening Post Publishing Co., which owns The Post and Courier and 22 other media outlets. The two companies, licensed under the moniker Access Charleston.com, agreed to invest close to $500,000 to get the system up and running. At the time, they said they were aiming to have the grid open by the New Year. In late December, the city and Wireless Access said most of the peninsula would get access with a "soft launch" on Jan. 18. But the signals that were available at that point were still password protected. Now, the grid is set for a "hard launch" March 31.

The contractors said there have not been any major delays, rather they are being thorough. Widespread Access has installed a major signal receiver on a Medical University of South Carolina building, and the hardware it was fine-tuning on the Gaillard on Wednesday will throw another big part of the Wi-Fi blanket.

Big telecom firms such as BellSouth and Comcast have lobbied to stop public Wi-Fi networks nationwide because they threaten their market share. Ernest Andrade, a Charleston economic development official who handled the project, said the city was looking for a small, local company to do the Wi-Fi work, although they don't offer as much in the way of manpower. "Everybody is working as hard as they can," Andrade said. "Keep in mind that this has gone from conception to execution faster than any network in this country. There isn't grass growing on anybody's feet here."

The home page and content of the network is close to complete, said Charles Bauman, chief information and technology officer for Evening Post. The newspaper company hired Charleston-based Slant Media LLC to develop the Web site or "splash page." Its out-of-house marketing firm, Rawle Murdy Associates Inc., is handling publicity for the March 31 launch date.

When the grid is complete, peninsula residents with a relatively new computer or a $30 to $50 Wi-Fi network card installed on an older machine will be able to tap into the city's signal, which will be dubbed "theRadius."

To make money on the venture, Staley's firm plans to offer users the option of buying faster Internet connections through the grid. Evening Post is looking to increase advertising revenue and newspaper subscriptions by handling network content, which will include links to local news articles, weather reports, retail stores and restaurants.