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Free Wi-Fi coming soon to downtown Petaluma

Published: Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 12:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 12:51 p.m.

Years after it was first planned, free wireless internet could soon blanket downtown Petaluma.

Some selected areas of downtown could have free Wi-Fi service by the time of the Butter & Egg Days parade in one month. Advocates are planning for the entire downtown, from the Petaluma River to Keller Street, and from Penry Park on the north to just beyond Walnut Park on the south, to be covered within about three months.

This means that anyone with a computer, mobile device or smart phone wishing to access the internet downtown will soon be able to do so for free, and without having to sign on or register.

It's a service that Petaluma has been trying to provide since about 2006. The undertaking has support from the city, but will be funded and implemented through the private sector.

“To me, this is the only way it's going to get done,” said Ryan Williams, who joined the city's Technology Advisory Committee with the goal of bringing Petaluma free Wi-Fi. Now, he's working part-time for the San Francisco-based company that is coordinating the Wi-Fi service, AdSpots. “I feel we have something here that's going to work.”

In the absence of city funds, the service will be primarily funded by advertisements that will appear on a “splash” page that every user will see when they first access the internet downtown. Comcast will provide the infrastructure.

The goal is to provide access for people who might otherwise find it difficult to afford the service.

“We've been trying to do this forever,” said Mayor David Glass, who was formerly a liaison to the technology committee. He has been a proponent of the project, particularly for getting the Wi-Fi extended to public and low-income areas. “There's been a level of frustration that we haven't been able to achieve something significant. It was the council's feeling that the city wasn't in a position to spend money, but if you could achieve it without costing the city money, we would support it.”

Glass added that he doesn't personally use the technology much, but sees the benefit for the city, recalling that he was in San Francisco recently and asked some youths at a coffee shop if the wireless they were using was available everywhere in the city. They laughed and said they wouldn't consider going anywhere that didn't offer it.

“For me, its not only for recreational users like those kids. Its a societal benefit,” he said.

Councilmember Mike Harris agreed that free Wi-Fi would be a benefit to town and that it was probably best being financed by the private sector given the city's fiscal challenges.

“It's something we should all embrace,” he said. “Having Wi-Fi in the city will not only put us on the map, it will continue the narrative of Petaluma being a tech-friendly city.” Harris added that he thought free Wi-Fi could help attract businesses to town.

The move to free wireless access is coming quickly after the Petaluma Downtown Association conducted a survey earlier this month that showed strong support among downtown business owners.

Currently, free Wi-Fi access is available at a few spots around town. The City of Petaluma in 2006 partnered with a Santa Rosa company, Sonic.net, to provide wireless hotspots downtown, but that effort never fully materialized. Free Wi-Fi is currently available at the Community Center in Lucchesi Park and at the Petaluma Library for anyone who has a library card. Additionally, customers at numerous local cafes and restaurants can access free wireless service.

The Wi-Fi being planned now would be free and not require registration. Users would simply log on and be free to access websites after viewing a page of advertisements from local businesses. AdSpots will provide the city a free banner ad at the top of the website, which will lead to a new, user-friendly city webpage.

As conceived, the advertisers' payments would underwite the cost of the wireless access, which will be provided by Comcast. Additional locations are being sought to create “hot spots” with the placement of small routing devices that broadcast a wireless signal to the surrounding area, About 25 of those are needed and the plan is to have between five and 10 by the Butter & Egg Days parade.

So far, the confirmed hot spots are the large yellow building at 100 Petaluma Boulevard, the Chick-a Boom in the Masonic Building at the corner of Petaluma Boulevard and Western Ave., Food Bar on Petaluma Boulevard, Bliss on Petaluma Boulevard, Powell's Sweet Shoppe on Petaluma Boulevard and the Hotel Petaluma on Kentucky Street.

If this first phase of free wireless in the downtown is a success, then plans are for it to eventually spread to the select spots, like public parks, on the eastern side of Petaluma.

The next step, however, may be getting the service on city buses.

It's something that Petaluma Transit was already looking into after a 2012 rider survey showed that wireless on city buses was one of the top requests from bus patrons.

“It came up a lot (on the survey),” said Transit Manager Joe Rye. “I'd always thought our bus trips were short enough, that in the days of the old bulky laptop, people wouldn't (want to bother with) Wi-Fi. But nowadays, with smart phones, if you don't have a data plan, your phone is always seeking free Wi-Fi. If we had free Wi-Fi, our riders would be happy.”

Rye is considering seeking federal grants to buy the equipment needed to implement wireless on city buses, and recently met with Williams to talk about potentially collaborating.

“We're just getting rolling, but we're really excited that the tech committee is spearheading this effort,” he said.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@arguscourier.com.)

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