Today Port Orchard, tomorrow the county

Sleepy little Port Orchard hardly qualifies as a high technology center, and won’t ever draw comparisons with Redmond or California’s Silicon Valley. But the Kitsap County seat is now equipped with a service absent in towns much larger and supposedly more sophisticated.

The city’s entire downtown strip is now a “wireless hot spot,” allowing anyone with a network-enabled laptop to just open the lid and gain instant access to the Internet.

Further, Port Orchard is only the first step in a wireless empire envisioned by Digital Technology and Wireless Solutions, whose president Jamie Aggen hopes to install similar services in all Kitsap County municipalities.

So within six months, any visitor to Bremerton, Silverdale, Keyport, Poulsbo, Kingston or Winslow may be able to log on from any curbside or coffee shop.

“We’re excited to be doing this,” Aggen said. “This is a service everyone wants.”

Most of the details about wireless Internet service are utterly incomprehensible to the average person. Serious Internet users, however, perceive its presence as a distinct advantage. A place with wireless access is by definition more desirable than one without.

“It’s enticing if you can sit in a park and log on to the Internet with your laptop,” said Brad Camp, a financial adviser for Piper Jaffray in Poulsbo. “It can eventually bring more people to the community.”

The DTS business model emulates the practice of giving away free services in order to generate interest in the paid ones. In this case, it assumes people will use it downtown and find it a sufficient improvement over their standard fare to justify purchasing the service for their homes.

DTS will first ask the city to join a partnership and allow installation of a transmitter in an official building (since no one yet owns the airwaves, this is not a request for permission).

If the city declines, DTS will rent another local facility for its transmitter and then begin broadcasting over the downtown area.

DTS will use a relay system to cover an entire downtown area, as several transmitters are necessary for error-free service. The company will offer free service to businesses and homes that will allow them to place an antennae on their roof.

DTS plans to increase its signal over the next few months, to where reception will reach the Kitsap County Courthouse area. This will increase the convenience for lawyers and visitors. County employees, however, will not use the public system to conduct government business, according to IT director Bud Harris, since the county needs to control the security of its own network.

Wireless access itself has become commonplace. Most new laptops contain all the tools for an instant log-in. National chains such as Barnes and Noble and Starbucks have offered paid service for several years.

There are also a handful of local coffee shops, like Poulsbo’s Hot Shots Java, that provide the service free to their customers, but the signal range extends only slightly beyond the shop’s walls.

But a free signal that covers the downtown area is unique and runs the risk of facing some resistance from other businesses.

In the first place, anyone selling wireless service will resent any provider who offers the service for free.

And once a locale becomes a free wireless zone, it tempts people to sit down and log on. This has no downside in a park or on a street, but an eating establishment may resent anyone occupying space for long periods of time while nursing a single drink.

As Margit Truman, bar manager for Port Orchard’s Myhre’s Restaurant, noted, “If you want to stay here, you need to pay rent on the space. You need to be spending some money.”

This is clearly new territory. Aggen admits it could cause some ill will between DTS and existing businesses, and will monitor the situation as it unfolds.

As will the restaurants. Moondog Bar and Grill owner Bill Parkinson probably wouldn’t allow a laptop squatter during lunch hour, saying “We only have six tables.”

But he would be more flexible during the slower afternoon hours when no one is waiting for a table.

In Poulsbo, Hot Shots Java uses its wireless service as a customer perk used on an honor system, according to owner/manager David Musgrove. “People know this is a give-and-take relationship,” he said. “They know we’re providing the service so they will buy some coffee. We let their conscience guide them, and we’ve had very few problems.”

Musgrove said that if free wireless were offered in downtown Poulsbo he would re-evaluate his service. Doing so would make his service redundant, and not worth spending the money on. Or he could continue, offering a more robust service that’s only available to his own customers.

Poulsbo City Councilor Ed Stern said free wireless service won’t really attract new businesses to Kitsap County, since they are more concerned with the area’s hardwired communications structure.

“But for their employees,” Stern said, “free wireless makes a place more attractive on a personal basis.”

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