Olathe If plans go forward, residents of three Johnson County cities could have access to high-speed wireless Internet service at all hours of the day.
Firefighters could download floor plans while battling a burning warehouse. Police could sync to helicopter surveillance videos while chasing suspects. And every person with a laptop in Johnson County could surf the Internet while sitting at the community pool.
The county and its three largest cities - Lenexa, Olathe and Overland Park - agreed this month to spend $180,000 to explore creating a wireless network that would stretch across the county's 460 square miles. Such a project also could bring down the cost of high-speed Internet access for residents, supporters say.
"It's one of the hottest issues facing local government today," said Alan Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute based in Washington, D.C.
The study, managed by the county's Emergency Communications Center, will analyze whether to create a public-private partnership to build a 20-city information network. The study is expected to be finished by the end of the year.
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Supporters claim such a network would bring digital democracy to suburban Kansas City. But telecom and cable providers say the government shouldn't subsidize wireless access to the Internet because it harms privately owned broadband providers who lose the business.
The Kansas City area already has numerous Wi-Fi hot spots - shorthand for "wireless fidelity" - where wireless laptop users can get online. But they can't always download high-speed data at every location.
If Johnson County develops the wireless network mesh, it would be the first of its kind in the Kansas City area. But critics point to the example of Orlando, Fla., which stopped operating its expensive municipal Wi-Fi operations when city leaders found few people accessed the network.
As many as 300 communities nationwide are exploring similar ideas. In Oklahoma City, taxpayers funded the world's largest Wi-Fi network accessible only to police and firefighters. In San Francisco, Google Inc. and EarthLink Inc. are building a $15 million Wi-Fi mesh. EarthLink will charge $20 a month for faster service, while Google will provide a slower, free service it will pay for through ads.
"These Wi-Fi networks are wonderful things. They are the future. We're going to have them everywhere," said Dan Stock, an Overland Park City Council member and retired district manager for Microsoft.
In a county where four of every five residents have a home computer, Stock says companies are ready to invest in the project.
"But government needs to be cautious," he said. "They have one shot to do it right."
That may hinge on one central question: Should high-speed Internet access be publicly provided at a regulated price, or should it be the exclusive purvey of the private sector?
Experts say building a wireless network costs between $200,000 to $250,000 per square mile. Once erected, street-level relay stations carry the wireless signal on antennas hooked up to a broadband network, says Walt Way, the director of the county's Emergency Communications Center.
All computer users operating within the mesh can receive the signal.
Boosters say it would improve government efficiency while saving Johnson County money, since private partners would build and operate the network. Putting the system out for a competitive bid also could lower customers' monthly costs and bring Internet to those who lack it, they say.
And some Johnson County leaders say the area might not be moving fast enough: other countries are creating networks using technology that's even more sophisticated than Wi-Fi.
"The world is at their fingertips instantaneously and all the time," said Deputy County Manager Hannes Zacharias. "And we don't want to be left behind."