Wi-Fi is emergency communications alternative in Florida

Public access Wi-Fi hot spots have become a key communications alternative in Florida in the wake of Hurricane Charley, with the local franchisee of Panera Bread Co. reporting a 50 per cent increase in traffic for the free Wi-Fi service it offers in 34 outlets in the state.

John Wetzel, director of operations at Covelli Family LLP, a unit of Covelli Enterprises Inc. in Warren, Ohio, said he believes that roughly 70 per cent of the Wi-Fi users at Panera Bread outlets in Florida are using the free Internet connections to do business. Covelli Enterprises is the Florida franchisee of Richmond Heights, Mo.-based Panera Bread.

“We have people holding business meetings in our stores” Wetzel said, pointing to the loss of electricity that has crippled many businesses throughout the state. Six days after Hurricane Charley roared throughout Florida, close to a half-million people still lack power, and nearly 100,000 people don’t have phone service.

People looking for Internet connections are also seeking out independent Wi-Fi hot spot operators. Lee Lorenzo, general manager of the Village Inn in Winter Park, a suburb of Orlando, said her restaurant had its power turned on Thursday, and she has already fielded several calls from people wanting to know if the Wi-Fi service was operational. Another four customers in the restaurant were already using the Wi-Fi connection.

Nate Williams, an event planner, said he had just finished a three-hour Internet session in the Village Inn, the first time he had been able to log onto the Internet in close to a week. Williams, a self-described regular at the restaurant, said the Village Inn provided him with everything he needed in posthurricane Florida — an Internet connection, food, power and an air conditioned environment to help beat the 88-degree temperature and high humidity.

Lorenzo didn’t know the speed of the Village Inn’s Internet connection, but Williams said “it is pretty good…. I surfed all over the Net, checked e-mail and listened to Internet radio.” Even in normal times, Williams said, the free Wi-Fi service at the Village Inn boosts the restaurant’s business. “They do more business here because of the free Wi-Fi,” he said.

Wetzel agreed, saying “free Wi-Fi brings in more people than paid [wireless service].” He said Panera and Covelli have few concerns about Wi-Fi freeloaders, because “people flock to crowded restaurants because of the energy.”

The Cafe Dufrain in Tampa saw a boost in use of its free Wi-Fi service last Thursday, as tourists and residents prepared to evacuate ahead of the hurricane, said Andrew Bonnemort, the cafe’s manager. There were as many as 20 people at a time using the service.

T-Mobile USA Inc. in Bellevue, Wash., which provides paid Wi-Fi hotspot service with several large national chains, offered free service in Florida through Monday. Its chain partners include bookstores operated by Borders Groups Inc., coffee shops run by Starbucks Corp., and copy centers run by FedEx Corp.’s Kinko’s Office and Print Services Inc.

A T-Mobile spokesman said the company wasn’t able to provide Wi-Fi usage data for outlets in Florida.

A FedEx Kinko’s spokeswoman said the company had short lines of customers waiting to use its computers with wired Internet connections at its stores in Fort Myers and Tampa.

The widespread power outage hit cellular service in some parts of the state. Verizon Wireless Inc. had only 80 per cent of its cell sites operating in the Orlando area due to power outages and 97 per cent of its network operating in southwest Florida, according to a company spokesman. Verizon Wireless, based in Bedminster N.J., had backup generators to keep the service up and running, but by Thursday they “started to run out of gas,” the spokesman said.

The Sprint PCS division of Sprint Corp. avoided that problem by ensuring that it had third-party fuel contracts in place as part of a business continuity plan, according to John Quigley, Sprint’s director of network operations. Sprint had 200 generators in place in Florida as of Monday, moving in some from as far away as Chicago, Quigley said.

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