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Does free Wi-Fi downtown matter

Free wireless Internet is not just the purvey of coffee shops downtown any more.

After haggling with downtown businesses (read: casinos) and the wireless company they were working with, the City of Las Vegas heralded free Wi-Fi services downtown within a square mile radius of Fremont Street Experience with a launch/scavenger hunt fundraiser Dec. 5 at the Downtown Grand.

The plan is to expand it to a 3-square-mile radius in 2014.

The program has been in beta-test mode with partner since the City Council approved the deal in July. The free service is aimed at laptop, tablet and smart phone users in the area. already had run a fee-based service in the area for nearly five years.

But there was a quid pro quo from the city in this deal. The local government has stopped charging rent on the transmitters on city property, such as light pole, in exchange for the free service.

So how will make money off this deal, besides free rent on some light poles? Advertising. Any time you connect through their free service, you will land on a home page plush with ads. This is the same funding formula some of the dozens of municipalities that offer free Wi-Fi have used to partner.

So, why is this connectivity important for Las Vegas? I’m not sure it is, but we have been pretty slow to the table on this one anyway.

Part of the argument is that connectivity is an essential part of infrastructure in a modern city, like roads, bus routes and bike lanes. The theory is it helps with tourism and investment. There is some nice back-and-forth on that opinion out there, but that’s the general argument.

In November, the Los Angeles City Council put out a request for proposal to build a Wi-Fi network across the city at a projected cost of $60 million to $100 million for a basic connect. A few cities such as Indianapolis and Houston offer free Wi-Fi in a wide footprint downtown. Will Las Vegas ever get to that point?

I think the argument needs to be bringing the wireless connect to the people who need it. Someone like myself will like the free wireless connect because it will prevent me from using up my data plan each month on my iPhone. But that’s a nice to have. What about the edges of the city where it could be argued its a need to have?

On Tuesday, New York City announced a outdoor Wi-Fi network for 95 city blocks in Harlem, which will include 13,000 public housing residents. Funded by a family foundation, the wireless network is aimed at not only visitors, but gives residents “24/7 access to everything from educational materials for kids…to everyday needs like paying bills,” said a city press release.

The focus for Las Vegas and all cities should be providing access by phone or tablet anywhere in the jurisdiction, not just in a tight area for people who already have access.

Not surprising, like seemingly anything else in the city, or county, or state, the big push back came from downtown businesses (casinos). What motivation do some hotel-casinos have to allow free Wi-Fi when some still charge for connections? And even if they provide free Wi-Fi, the landing page to log-in is another spot visitors can be hit with more revenue generating ads.

One big upside of the free wireless Internet is that is will free up some tables at those coffee shops from those “writers” who spend hours at the same table working on their “novel.”

ARNOLD M. KNIGHTLY is the editor of CityLife and spends way too much time on his iPhone, according to his wife.