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Panel eyes free wireless Internet idea

Panel eyes free wireless Internet idea

You can already sit at one of several cafes downtown and sip a hot drink while surfing the Intern

You can already sit at one of several cafes downtown and sip a hot drink while surfing the Internet for free.

Now, a public official wants to study the feasibility of bringing free wireless Internet access to a big swath of the city.

Joanne Yepsen, county supervisor representing the city, has put together a committee to study whether residents would benefit from municipal wireless Internet, how much it would cost and funding possibilities.

The committee, headed by Jennifer Leidig, is expected to issue a recommendation in about three months.

City taxpayers wouldn’t foot the bill for the service, Yepsen stressed.

She has already inquired with the state Office of Technology about applying in the next round of grants for bringing high-speed Internet service to municipalities. Gov. Eliot Spitzer has proposed $15 million for municipal Internet in his next year’s financial plan.

Leidig said the city would look at possible partnerships with private companies, including Internet providers that might make the infrastructure investment for free with the return promise of a long-term contract.

Other municipalities have paid between $500,000 and $1 million for the initial infrastructure costs for a similar system, Leidig said.

In 2006, Schenectady’s Metroplex Development Authority got a $73,000 state grant and matched it with $146,000 to install five antennas around the city.

The network supplies a wireless signal to users from Nott Terrace near Union College to Interstate 890 and as far west as Schenectady County Community College, including the Stockade neighborhood.

Yepsen said high-speed Internet access is needed for Saratoga Springs to stay competitive as a tourist destination and to attract retirees and telecommuters to the area.

And wireless Internet could help the city government with better police communications and by providing on-site tax assessments and code reports via the Web, Yepsen suggested.

“There’s a lot of ways that police could be talking to each other without having to go back to the station or use those old radio-controlled systems.”

In this connected world, Saratoga Springs City School District would like every student to have access to the Internet at home.

“Improved connectivity and access will help us in our goal to communicate electronically with every parent,” said Janice White, superintendent of Saratoga schools.

Leidig said the committee will look at how many people in the city lack Internet service.

“If your family can’t afford Internet services, they’re at a disadvantage,” Leidig said. “That’s unacceptable.”

Small businesses also could benefit because they could buy Internet service more affordably through a municipal system than they can on their own.

Any wireless system would have the best security available, Yepsen said.

Leidig, co-owner of technology-based company Ambiance Systems Inc., said the committee now includes five people and can be expanded as people with various expertise show interest.

Anyone interested in serving on the committee or offering advice may call Yepsen at 691-8024.

Nationwide, municipal wireless Internet has not always been a success, said Peter Taubkin, spokesman for Time Warner Cable, which launched high-speed Internet service in Saratoga Springs in 1997.

“These endeavors many times don’t pan out,” he said. “At the end of the day, consumers want reliable service.”

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