While it's still at the "what if we did this" stage, the plan under consideration borrows from a successful system that's more than 30 years old.
Richard Lewis, the city's chief technology officer, says he is looking a system that would break Houston into about 100 six-square-mile "hot zones," each controlled by a wireless Internet provider that's won a bid for exclusive rights to control that territory.
The network would be built first in the parts of town with the densest populations, such as downtown or the Galleria area, then expanded, even into residential areas. It would give residential users another choice for high-speed broadband access in the home.
The cost for setting up the network would be borne by private companies that would get a part of the fees paid by subscribers to use the network. The service providers would also get a cut.
Billing issues still have to be worked out, but the service would not be free. Lewis said the city is looking at using the same type of billing arrangement planned for WiFi access now being set up at Houston's two big airports. There, users will be billed through their existing Internet service providers, thanks to a consortium of providers, Lewis said. Airport WiFi access should be available by the end of this year.
The city already is experimenting with the benefits of WiFi access for its workers and the public. Lewis said building inspectors no longer report to a central office, but get their assignments wirelessly in the morning and go directly to work. He estimated it saves two hours of travel time and provides a 15 percent boost in productivity.
The city's library is installing WiFi access at its branches, while all the Harris County Public Library's branches already have it.