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Free Wi-Fi coming to downtown Fort Wayne

Thursday, August 23, 2012 - 7:39 am

What do the statue of Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne, a Citilink bus stop, the Allen County Courthouse Green and a hot dog stand all have in common?

You can find them all in downtown Fort Wayne, and each could turn into a free wireless Internet hot spot by the end of the year, thanks to a partnership between the city and Frontier Communications.

Under an agreement preliminarily approved Wednesday by the city's Board of Public Works, Frontier would pay a small fee to run wireless Internet, or Wi-Fi, antennas to downtown traffic signal poles, allowing visitors to get online while sparing precious bytes of their mobile Internet data plans.

“We're very excited about it because we think it shows we're a modern city,” Mayor Tom Henry said, adding that Fort Wayne could “definitely use it as a marketing tool” when making pitches to companies or conventions looking for a place to locate.

The antennas would provide outdoor broadband Internet access to the central business district bounded by Clay Street, Broadway, Headwaters Park and Lewis Street, city traffic engineer Doug Hilkey said.

City officials said pedestrians would be able to access data at 512 kilobytes per second – a relatively low speed by broadband standards – throughout the downtown area, with a faster 1 megabyte-per-second connection at One Summit Square and Freimann Square. But Frontier spokesman Roscoe Spencer said the connection could exceed those rates in certain places because of the company's fiber optic network.

A Wi-Fi connection would allow people to access email, browse the Web and use applications on their laptops, tablets and phones without tapping into expensive mobile data plans, which often have monthly limits on usage and steep overage fees. The connection would be focused outdoors but could also bleed into downtown businesses, Spencer said.

Spencer said Frontier considered the project a way to give back to the Fort Wayne community, which is the company's biggest market in Indiana and second-largest in its overall service area. Frontier already set up free Wi-Fi access in Terre Haute, its second-largest Indiana market.

“As a flagship city, we should have some of our most innovative products than we can offer in the Fort Wayne marketplace,” Spencer said.

While eateries and other businesses are still hit-and-miss when it comes to offering Wi-Fi, Spencer said the service is becoming more and more essential to people's day-to-day lives as they use tablets and phones to work and play on the go. Henry said several people have approached city officials about the lack of consistent access downtown.

At the downtown connection's slowest points, it would likely allow for email access and simple Web browsing, while users could stream Netflix movies and do more complex tasks in areas with stronger signals, Spencer said.

Depending on when Frontier and the city finalize details, the Wi-Fi connection could be in place before the end of the year, Spencer said.

Frontier, based in Stamford, Conn., in 2010 took over Verizon Communications' telephone, high-speed Internet, FiOS fiber-optic cable and other services in 14 states, including Indiana. At the time, Frontier said the $5.3 billion acquisition made it the country's biggest communications services provider in rural areas.