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Free downtown wifi in Petaluma moving ahead without Comcast

Published: Thursday, April 11, 2013 at 3:26 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 11, 2013 at 3:26 p.m.

Petalumans and tourists may soon have free wifi access throughout downtown, a program the city hopes will be attractive to businesses as well.

AdSpots, a private company with offices in Canada and San Francisco, has been working with business owners and city officials to install several hotspots in time for the popular Butter & Egg Days parade on April 27.

The company had been working with Comcast for a year to provide the internet service in Petaluma's downtown core, said Sandra Schulze of AdSpots. But that partnership fell through Thursday, when the cable internet provider withdrew its support.

“We're going to get this done, it's just not going to be done with Comcast,” she said of the last-minute hitch.

The company hopes to operate as many as 20 hotspots that would cover most of the downtown area.

A Comcast coordinator for the AdSpots program declined to comment, saying he would refer inquiries to a spokesman. Comcast has been installing its own hotspots, free only for customers of its cable or internet services.

AdSpots is a different model, free for all internet users, and one Schulze said will benefit the city, businesses and tourists.

AdSpots would sell advertising to local businesses whose ad would appear on a “splash page” that smartphone, tablet or computer users would land on when accessing the free hotspot. The user could then click through to the internet after visiting the landing page.

All of the landing pages would have a “Welcome to Petaluma” message at the top and some basic city information, said City Councilman Mike Harris, who is on the city's technology committee. The rest of the page would vary depending on the hotspot location and desires of the advertiser.

Powell's Sweet Shoppe, for example, could lure customers to its Theatre District candy store from a Petaluma Boulevard hotspot, Harris said.

“They wouldn't need the advertising right at their shop,” he said. “But they could use a hotspot somewhere nearby where they could take advantage of the foot traffic to bring them to the store.”

AdSpots, which provides free hotspots on San Francisco ferries, approached the city with the plan, which requires no formal approvals or public money, said the city's information technology manager, Tim Williamsen. There hasn't been any public objection to widely available hotspots, as there was in Sebastopol five years ago.

City officials have said local businesses are seeking connectivity as a perk to offer their customers or employees. Some offer hotspots that are accessible in or near their shop.

“Having free downtown wifi is great for visitors to the downtown, which is always good for economic development,” said city Economic Development Manager Ingrid Alverde. “I also think that the more tech savvy the city is, the more satisfied local talent is, which does help attract and retain talent.”

Since Comcast has backed out, AdSpots is working to find another internet service provider, preferably a smaller company, Schulze said.

“They told us they are going to be competing with us. They're a big company with all the manpower,” she said. “But we have a way better model — it's free.

“We'll have to bring in somebody smaller,” she said. “At this point, what we're trying to do is look for the best provider.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.)

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