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Company Approved for LAX Free Wi-Fi Contract

The Board of Airport Commissioners approves a wireless-Internet contract, but takes heat for not doing so under a bidding process standard for similar government transactions with businesses.

A Los Angeles City Council committee voted Monday in favor of offering free wireless Internet to passengers at Los Angeles International Airport by mid-July, but the plan still faces an obstacle in getting approval from the full 15-member council.

The Board of Airport Commissioners, which oversees LAX, approved a contract on June 4 with a Florida-based company to provide the service.

The plan would allow travelers to see a 15- to 30-second advertisement before gaining access to 45 minutes of free Internet.

The City Council voted unanimously last week to assert its authority over the commission and halt the plan after several council members raised concerns that the contract was improperly awarded to Advanced Wireless Group LLC without entertaining bids from other wireless providers.

Officials at Los Angeles World Airports defended the contract and said halting it would put the airport at risk of having no wireless Internet starting July 16, when telecommunications company T-Mobile plans to turn off its fee-based Wi-Fi service at LAX.

"I do not want one day without wi-fi at that airport," said Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes LAX. "I do not want a person to get off of a plane from anywhere on Earth ... and can't even get online."

The council's Trade, Commerce and Tourism Committee voted 2-1 to affirm the Airport Commission's decision to hire AWG. Councilman Joe Buscaino, who cast the dissenting vote, argued the contract cut out other companies, including Boingo Wireless, which is based in Los Angeles.

Buscaino also said the city is not getting the best deal for the wi-fi service. LAWA Chief Operating Officer Steve Martin disputed Buscaino. He said the airport is not spending any money for the service. The contract with AWG is performance-based and requires the company to spend as much money as necessary to provide a fast wireless connection across the entire airport.

"If we want to make more money, we will go dark for awhile," Martin said, calling the contract with AWG a "bridge" to maintain wireless Internet access at the airport after T-Mobile pulls out.

He said airport officials will conduct a competitive bidding process for a much more advanced, $20 million antenna-based wireless system that will accommodate passengers as well as secure public safety and internal wireless communication at the airport.

LAWA officials said the competitive bidding process, necessary infrastructure work and testing of the system could take up to three years to complete.

Boingo executives urged the council to reject the contract, accusing AWG of being inexperienced. Boingo's vice president for business development, Zack Sterngold, said his company could get the project done better and faster and would commit to spending between $800,000 and $2.5 million. AWG Chief Executive Officer Scott Phillips defended his company, which was created in 2004, as the largest operator of free wi-fi at airports in the United States. AWG provides wireless Internet at airports in Miami, Boston, San Francisco and other smaller airports.

LAWA's assistant general counsel, Tim Daze, told the committee that the city is on "solid" legal ground in hiring AWG without the competitive bidding process. The full City Council will vote Wednesday whether to affirm the Board of Airport Commissioner's decision to hire AWG or to veto the plan and hold a new round of bidding.

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