published Sunday, August 25th, 2013

Private companies expanding Wi-Fi hotspots in Scenic City

Graduate student Hilary Lyons, left, studies inside the Gunbarrel Road Panera Bread restaurant in this file photo. Real Estate business man Clive deLaporte drinks coffee and checks property listings on the internet, at right.
Graduate student Hilary Lyons, left, studies inside the Gunbarrel Road Panera Bread restaurant in this file photo. Real Estate business man Clive deLaporte drinks coffee and checks property listings on the internet, at right.
Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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A handful of companies are working to blanket Chattanooga with Wi-Fi coverage, which could turn the Scenic City into a hot spot for professionals who'd rather work from a patio than a penthouse.

Comcast is on track to install more than 500 Wi-Fi hot spots in the city this year, AT&T has installed more than 50 new hot spots, and EPB is slowly ramping up its own efforts, officials at those companies say.

Jim Weigert, general manger and vice president of Comcast in Chattanooga, said the world's largest cable company is making Wi-Fi a priority as it battles to keep subscribers interested in its services. Weigert moved up his timetable to unveil the service after realizing that city officials did not plan to open up their municipal Wi-Fi network, he said, which runs on the same wireless band found in most in-home routers.

"Residents in this area may have been frustrated that we don't have a Wi-Fi solution, and now we do," Weigert said. "You think about data, connectivity has really become critical to people's lives and the future of innovation -- people just want data."

Chattanooga officials in 2011 told the Times Free Press that citizens would soon have access to citywide Wi-Fi, thanks to a multimillion-dollar push to install beer keg-sized wireless routers all over the Scenic City.

Today, millions of dollars worth of routers are installed and running, but Chattanooga's newest leader has dropped plans to open up what officials call a "wireless mesh" system to ordinary citizens. Instead, Mayor Andy Berke is slowing down the rate of expansion and reevaluating the system, his advisers say.

"We have no plans for citywide Wi-Fi," wrote Lacie Stone, the director of communications for the city, in an emailed statement.

But that doesn't mean that users will be stuck with their 4G data plan when they're out and about.

Comcast has installed more than 150 Xfinity hot spots in waiting rooms, bars and cafes across the city in the last four months, with plans to hit 500 by the end of 2013, Weigert said. It's part of a nationwide push that includes about 1,000 new hotspots in Tennessee and more than 300,000 across the country. A loose alliance of cable companies including Cox, Cablevision, Time Warner and Bright House are working together to build out the system, which will eventually blanket doctors' offices, coffee shops and parks around the U.S., Weigert said.

Since this system isn't paid for by tax dollars, there's a small cost to the customer. For existing Comcast subscribers, it's free with their Xfinity login and password. Other surfers can take advantage of two 60-minute complimentary sessions per month. If they need more time, it costs $3 per hour, $8 per day or $20 per week.

The heaviest Internet users may end up subscribing to Xfinity Internet, which wouldn't bother Weigert a bit.

"Not everybody's a Comcast customer, but that's OK, because generally you're not in the doctor's office more than twice a month," Weigert said.

Comcast's system is far from complete, and it's a far cry from the Chattanooga municipal network, which covers most major streets and much of the city's downtown. But despite the almost complete lack of advertising, customers are already taking advantage of Weigert's Wi-Fi.

The number of Wi-Fi sessions have increased sevenfold in the last several months, and the number of sessions per user have doubled, he said.

"Now, on average, customers are using it 10 times per month," he said, "We're at almost 40 minutes per session, and customers on average are using 7 hours per month."

And that's with the network at just one-quarter of its planned size later this year, he said. Currently, Comcast is offering to place the Wi-Fi hotspots for free inside small businesses that subscribe to its service and request the router. The company is also installing it in all new business subscribers who have a waiting area, casual dining room or other place where people surf the web, he said.

EPB, which boasts the fastest wired Internet in the western hemisphere, is also expanding its wireless offerings. For instance, EPB Fiber Optics provides public access to wireless Internet at 16 of the city's recreation centers, said John Pless, public relations coordinator for EPB. The utility also helps business customers set up Wi-Fi if they want to offer it to guests.

For instance, visitors to the First Tennessee Pavalion and Lake Winnepesaukah are able to log in through the EPB connection there, Pless said. And though EPB isn't installing hotspots throughout the city, the utility pointed out that many such hotspots run on its wired fiber-optic backbone. Unless they're Comcast or AT&T customers, of course.

"All Wi-Fi requires a backbone, like the fiber optic network we've built in Chattanooga," said Katie Espeseth, EPB vice president of new products, in an emailed statement.

AT&T, for its part, it moving more slowly than Comcast, offering just 50 hotspots in Chattanooga. But AT&T has less incentive to build out its Wi-Fi network, since it also offers wireless access through its 4G data offerings available on cell phones. Verizon and T-Mobile also offer 4G service in Chattanooga.

But unlike Wi-Fi, which costs little to provide, 4G data plans are often capped at just a few gigabytes of data, forcing users to upgrade their plan or throttle their speed to 3G. To do serious work without a cable, Wi-Fi is almost a necessity.

That's where restaurants like Krystal come in. Along with a handful of other locations, most Krystal restaurants offer totally free Wi-Fi. A handful of website like OpenWiFiSpots.com or UrbanSpoon.com maintain lists of the restaurants offering free wirerless access to patrons.

"My kids, the first thing they want to do when they go places is log on somewhere with their device," Weigert said. "It really does benefit the whole community."

Contact Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6315.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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