Fairbanks looking to expand Internet

Borough plans to set up wireless hot spots around town

Posted: Monday, December 24, 2007

FAIRBANKS - A plan is under way to expand free, low-speed wireless Internet access in Fairbanks next summer.

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The Fairbanks North Star Borough plans to ask prospective providers next month for proposals. The request entails having the borough set up hot spots at sites with a heavy flow of tourists, sites that could include downtown's Golden Heart Plaza. The spots would be active during the summer only.

It also calls for knowing whether firms could set up a low-speed, wireless Internet access project to reach a broad swath of town.

Borough chief of staff Bob Shefchik said the borough is only considering low-speed options to avoid competing with private companies that offer high-speed access on the private market.

"The idea (is) that you can provide public access to information at little or no cost," he said.

A number of places including the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus and the Noel Wien Public Library already offer free, higher-speed wireless access.

Shefchik said interest has already arrived from a few potential service providers but that borough officials have yet to draft a detailed request for proposals.

The Borough Assembly in 2006 set aside $250,000 to develop business models and study the potential for a community-wide wireless project. The money came from a one-time financial assistance package from state lawmakers and is available to the borough as plans move forward.

Shefchik said the borough expects it will cost between $20,000 and $40,000 annually to establish and maintain new hot spots.

The prospect of community-wide wireless Internet likely won't mean much to entrepreneurs thinking of setting up small businesses inside or outside the core downtown area, particularly if the access is low-speed, said Therese Sharp, chairwoman of the Downtown Association of Fairbanks.

"It's not going to hurt," she said.

Expanding that access to a few other hot spots this summer will be easy, involving mounting equipment on buildings or light poles.

The prospect of a large-scale expansion project is much trickier, and borough officials are still studying models that have worked or failed in other communities. Shefchik said existing technology that has allowed some larger cities to blanket their communities with high-speed broadband access has yet to become affordable or appropriate for Fairbanks.

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