San Antonio officials are negotiating with Google Inc. to provide public, outdoor Wi-Fi networks to the city as part of a deal to bring super-fast fiber-optic Internet service.
Hugh Miller, San Antonio's chief technology officer, said he and city leaders have discussed the possibility of public Wi-Fi with Google, but the conversations have centered around infrastructure and logistics and are preliminary in nature.
“We are planning on doing whatever we need to do to help (Google) bring this service to San Antonio,” Miller told the San Antonio Express-News. “We provide some type of public access to some parks, the airport and libraries now and if they want to augment that, it is a great option for us and for them.”
The city will step up negotiations for outdoor Wi-Fi, which would likely be free, if the California-based Internet giant selects San Antonio for its fiber-optic service.
Google recently launched a test zone in Kansas City with free Wi-Fi near a shopping mall.
However, the company has been secretive about specifics.
“We'd love to be able to bring outdoor Wi-Fi access to all of our 'Fiber' cities, although we don't have any specific plans to announce right now,” said Jenna Wandres, a spokeswoman for Google in California.
Google has not officially selected San Antonio for its gigabit Fiber service, but Mayor Julián Castro and other officials have said they expect the city to be selected this year.
There are 34 cities and nine metropolitan areas that are seeking Google Fiber, and May 1 is the deadline to submit information.
Google is expected select cities for the service within the next few months.
Additionally, Miller said a high-speed, publicly accessible wireless Internet service, which likely would be free in such high-traffic areas as the River Walk, would be a “great asset” for the city and could push San Antonio closer to becoming a leading technology hub.
Google currently provides free, citywide public Wi-Fi in its hometown of Mountain View, Calif., and also pays the city for use of light poles for network equipment.
In San Antonio, Wi-Fi service would provide quick access to a wealth of online information for smart phone, tablet and laptop users on the go and could bolster tech jobs and start-ups and enhance education and health care systems, Miller said.
“How, when and if they deploy these networks is not clear yet,” Miller said. “It sounds to me that they are getting information (from cities) and internally trying to build a conceptual strategy.”
Miller said the service could also be used in areas that don't have as much access to the Internet, such as lower-income neighborhoods, to bridge a gap of connectivity.
Austin is one of only three cities currently served by Google's fiber-optic subscriber Internet service, which is about 100 times faster than typical broadband and ideal for streaming or downloading high-quality video. The others are Kansas City, Missouri, and Provo, Utah.
The Fiber service costs about $70 per month, or $120 when bundled with cable service, in those markets. Officials believe the increased competition would drive down costs for consumers who use other networks, too.
Time Warner Cable currently offers outdoor Wi-Fi networks for subscribers in some cities across the country in which users download a Wi-Fi finder app on their device. The company has 1,300 hotspots in Austin but none in San Antonio.
“Our focus now is to continue to build out existing markets” and potentially expand to additional cities in the future, said Melissa Sorola, director of communications for Time Warner Cable in Texas.
A spokeswoman for AT&T, which announced last week it potentially would expand its fiber-optic service to San Antonio, said “we welcome competition in all markets. Competition amongst providers benefits consumers.”
The City Council approved a contract in March with Google Fiber Texas LLC that lays the groundwork needed for Google to move forward in San Antonio with its fiber-optic service.
The company announced in February that San Antonio is one of eight cities it's looking to expand its high-speed service system.
Miller said the city provides minimal public Internet access now at libraries, the airport and a few other city buildings because of infrastructure and maintenance costs, but the service could be beneficial for Google and local merchants by selling advertisements.
For example, a River Walk restaurant could place a regionally targeted advertisement with Google, which would automatically pop up on a user's device when logged into the network.
Google also has the capability to provide much faster Internet than the city does, Miller said.
Leticia Ozuna, a former District 3 councilwoman who now works for a cyber security firm, said public Wi-Fi would provide economic opportunity as well as convenience.
“I think this type of public offering can help to create an environment that drives demand, a competitive environment and universal connectivity,” Ozuna said.
City officials have been interested in increased public access but were hesitant to implement large networks because of costs, she said.
“We have a bubble of disconnected people in this city and so far there have not been opportunities to get into the bubble,” she said. “This could change that.”
©2014 the San Antonio Express-News