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County begins search for company to spread wireless internet

LAWRENCEVILLE

This week, Gwinnett County will begin its search for providers to spread wireless Internet access across its 435 square miles.

According to the government's Chief Information Officer Wally Gramling, the county will advertise for requests for proposals in Thursday's edition of the Gwinnett Daily Post.

Details for the Wi-Fi program, for which the county received a grant, remain tentative until the provider is selected, Gramling said, adding that the county is hoping the private sector will provide ideas on how to create the network.

Officials are considering creating a nonprofit to run the system so the county can accept money from private donors.

Gramling said the project would begin in Lawrenceville, or a section of the city, so the network can be tested for service needs before it is spread to other areas.

According to the $750,000 state grant, the network must be extended to Gwinnett's incorporated areas - its cities - by September, he said.

Agencies already have fiber optics connecting some cities, fire stations, schools and other locations to networks, but the grant would allow the county to increase its bandwidth and create a countywide service.

Residents and business people would be able to connect for free with an advertising-based service or pay for faster service, while public safety officers and other agency officials would be able to access the network while anywhere in the service area. The service will also allow the county to control traffic lights and other technology, Gramling said.

But a report issued in December by the Reason Institute cautions officials against "geeks bearing gifts," suggesting that companies like EarthLink and Google are interested in providing free Wi-Fi because the deals will give them rights of way and valuable access to public infrastructure like light and telephone poles.

"Proposals for free or privately subsidized Wi-Fi are obviously attractive at face value," said Jerry Ellig, the report's author and a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. "Exclusive access to rights of way and poles would bestow a significant competitive advantage on any firm selected to use them. Local governments should beware of granting one Wi-Fi provider exclusive access to public assets, even if the Wi-Fi service itself is free of charge to users. Local governments should not let the sizzle of free Wi-Fi obscure the consumer's stake in competition."

Gramling said there is a key difference between the projects in the study and Gwinnett's own wireless plan.

"We will not own the network, operate the network, bill for services or support and maintain the network," he said. "This is not something that we are interested in as a county government and will be the responsibility of the selected vendor."