COLUMBIA — A peaceful lunch break outdoors no longer means being disconnected from the Internet at two city parks.
Columbia Parks and Recreation chose Stephens Lake Park and Flat Branch Park as the locations for free Wi-Fi Internet services donated by iZones, a local wireless Internet provider. In Stephens Lake Park, three hotspots provide Wi-Fi coverage in popular places like the beach area, Riechmann pavilion and Gordon shelter, while Flat Branch Park in downtown Columbia has full coverage on both blocks.
Mike Griggs, park services manager for the Parks and Recreation Department, has seen frequent citizen requests for wireless Internet in Columbia’s parks, especially in what he calls “urbanized parks with a lot of café traffic” such as people getting coffee or taking lunch breaks.
“Ten years ago, people read newspapers in the park,” Griggs said. “Now everyone reads them online. We wanted to provide that option.”
The equipment and installation for the Wi-Fi cost $5,430, but the monthly bill for the service is being waived by iZones.
Tim Worstell, the owner of iZones, said he considers the cost, estimated at $300 per month for both parks, as a way for his business to give back to his hometown. The company agreed to sponsor monthly Internet in return for advertising, including a small logo on the Columbia Parks and Recreation Web site and an ad on the login page for the park Internet.
The city was required to offer the job to other Internet providers. Only two bids were received and since the alternative service provider’s offer was more expensive, iZones was considered the best deal.
“We’ll continue donating the Internet indefinitely, as long as they want the service,” Worstell said.
The Wi-Fi is accessible on most laptops and smart phones with wireless capability. To discourage the use of free service by businesses or residents outside of parks, users are automatically logged off after 30 minutes.
The park sales tax paid for the equipment and installation fees. This tax funds capital improvement projects and sets aside $60,000 per year for small projects, according to Griggs.
The park sales tax “is dedicated for capital improvements such as improving existing parks and the acquisitions and development of new ones,” Griggs said. “It originally bought Stephens Lake Park. But because it’s a dedicated sales tax, we can’t hire more people with it.”
Griggs said the new Internet would benefit businesses and groups who rent out rooms in the Riechmann Pavilion in Stephens Lake Park for meetings and conferences, but mainly it is meant to serve the individual.
“It’s very unobtrusive, either you choose to use it or you don’t,” Griggs said, “but it’s nice to be able to do things online without being encumbered by brick and mortar buildings.”