SEBRING — It wasn’t like this, even 10 years ago. Back then, a few restaurants in Highlands County like Panera and Wendy’s gave away wi-fi. It was available in hotels and the Avon Park, Lake Placid and Sebring libraries. Today, most U.S. 27 fast-food restaurants and hotels offer free Internet connections, along with bigger stores like Lowe’s and Publix. “Home Depot and Target do that,” Chief Technology Officer Thomas Haralson Jr. said. Customers can comparison shop by brand and even see prices offered by competitors. But the store’s wireless network captures what the shopper reads.
“They can resell that data,” Haralson said. “They can also see the cookies stored on your Internet browser and the traffic when you land on a website.” A decade ago, Sebring library had a half-dozen public computers. These days, said library Director Mary Myers, there are 23 in Sebring, 21 in Avon Park and 16 in Lake Placid. And there’s a waiting list. Therefore, it’s common for patrons to bring their own smart phones, tablets, ebook readers and laptops. “There are always two or three,” Myers said, “sometimes six or seven.” On Friday, it was a man whose cable-based home Internet doesn’t work and a homeless woman doing business over a Dell laptop and her flip phone. Public wi-fi is available at Sebring City Hall, Spring Lake’s business office, the county road and bridge offices in Lake Placid and Avon Park, the county courthouse and Government Center in Sebring. Even the landfill and the recycling center on Skipper Road are on Haralson’s 16-site county list. “We have free wi-fi in the golf club house and the ability to implement it at the community center/pool complex with minimal costs,” Sun N’ Lake district manager Mike Wright said. The library offers wi-fi as a public service, Myers said. The county clerk of court took the opposite approach, Haralson said. “County business drives a need for business-related wireless access.” And since the clerk was building a private wi-fi network, public access was allowed too, Haralson said. For security reasons, only public wi-fi signal is accessible to the public. There could be a wi-fi umbrella over parts of Sebring in a few years, City Manager Scott Noethlich said. “We have been dealing with Gina Reynolds, and she brought Affiniti to the table,” Noethlich said. Reynolds, executive director of Florida’s Heartland Rural Economic Development Initiative, announced two weeks ago that the Austin, Texas broadband provider would manage a network that will resell the Internet to 250,000 Central Florida residents. Sebring’s community redevelopment agency is asking if it’s possible to wi-fi downtown. “We are in a waiting pattern now,” Noethlich said. Along with CRA director Robin Hinote, he met with Affiniti and Reynolds. “We took a tour around the city. It’s ambitious from a technology standpoint.” Maybe just Circle Park will get wi-fi, Noethlich suggested. “We don’t have any (dollar) numbers yet.” One problem that Noethlich, Myers and Haralson talked about was bandwith. “The bandwidth has increased several times over the past few years,” Myers said. “We couldn’t do without it.” Like a pipe’s ability to hold water, a cable holds Internet signals. When too many people access the Internet at once, signals slow down. Movies are interrupted, web pages take seconds or minutes to load. “Speed is important,” Myers said. “People want to be able to see an entire web page at once.” The money to do that came from a federal excise tax on telephones, which is redistributed to schools and libraries. In the future, wi-fi will be faster, more dynamic, more interactive, Myers envisioned. Her patrons may use WebMD not just to view static information, but to talk to doctors. “People will communicate more and more with FaceTime and Skype. We don’t encourage it now because of the noise factor, but there could come a time when we might have listening booths, like we used to have for music.” Wi-fi Skype booths? email@example.com 863-386-5828 Hot spots Boston has switched on free wi-fi for 30,000 Grove Hall neighborhood residents. It’s the first step to blanketing the entire city. The City of Tampa and Brighthouse Networks are wi-fiing public parks to attract tech-savvy residents. The City of Salisbury is halfway toward its goal of wi-fiing the entire Maryland city of 31,000.