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LAX’s plans for free WiFi grounded by LA City Council

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A contract that will bring free wireless Internet to Los Angeles International Airport hit a speed bump today as the Los Angeles City Council voted to review the contract because of concerns it was selected in a vacuum.

The two-year contract with Advanced Wireless Group will be reviewed by members of the Trade, Commerce and Tourism Committee on Monday. Council members said they were concerned about the contract because it was not selected through a competitive bidding process. 

LAX currently offers WiFi for a fee through T-Mobile. The company is ending that service and it will take at least two years to select a new contractor and install a permanent distributed antenna system, according to Debbie Bowers, deputy executive director for commercial development at Los Angeles World Airports. 

Advanced Wireless Group was selected after LAWA officials looked at San Francisco International Airport’s recent competitive process to select a WiFi provider. With the new contract, wireless Internet at LAX would be free for 45 minutes after passengers watch a 15 to 30-second advertisement. The service could be in place later this summer, if the Los Angeles City Council allows the contract to move forward.

“Because T-Mobile had notified us that they were getting out of the business of providing WiFi, we were sort of under the gun to get something done,” Bowers said. 

Councilmen Dennis Zine and Richard Alarcon were the most vocal critics of the contract.

“My concern is that we have to be honest with what we’re doing and I think there’s some – I’m not going to say dishonesty – but some suspicion as to why it’s being done in this matter,” said Zine, who is running for city controller.

The city council was able to review the Board of Airport Commissioners’ decision under Section 245 of the city charter, which gives members 21 days to affirm or reject the contract by a two-thirds votes. Over the years, the city council has used the privilege to review lucrative concession agreements at LAX.

Representatives for Los Angeles-based Boingo also appeared before the city council to ask for a review of the contract awarded to one of its competitors.

“You do not get to your core values with a direct negotiation, without the RFP process,” said attorney Tim McOsker, the former chief of staff to Mayor Jim Hahn. “You do not know if you’ve gotten the best price.”

The contract with Advanced Wireless Group is valued at a $663,333.

Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes LAX, first asked his colleagues to vote against the motion to review the decision, later telling KPCC it’s “embarrassing” that the airport does not already provide free WiFi. But, after hearing that the issue could be heard within the next week, he voted to take the matter back to committee.

“I’ve waited six years and if I need to wait longer I will,” he said. “I had assumed that the process was absolutely by the book and by the way the lawyer explained it, it was.”

Councilman Tom LaBonge had also urged against the review, saying “if you want to serve the people who go to the airport, vote no.”  In the end, however, he also voted to take the matter to committee.

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