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Big Brother Hits The Beach

AP | July 31, 2007
Wayne Parry

OCEAN CITY, N.J.— At the beach of the future, high tide will meet high-tech.

Visitors will wear wristbands that automatically debit their bank accounts or credit cards to pay for beach access, food and parking. Garbage cans will send e-mail to cleanup crews when they're ready to be emptied.

And people won't even think about trying to sneak in: Beach checkers could scan the sands with handheld devices and instantly know who didn't pay.

This southern New Jersey city plans to deliver a variety of public services and Internet access using radio-frequency identification chips and Wi-Fi wireless technology. The $3 million project is expected to be finished by next summer.

Beach badges, those plastic or cloth scourges of the Jersey shore, could become a thing of the past. The beach-access fees — $5 per day, $10 for a week, or $20 for the entire summer — will remain.

“This is the future,” said Karen Kinloch, a summer resident. “It's where we're at right now. It's probably overdue. It's kind of antiquated to take a piece of plastic and pin it to your swimsuit.”

Will McKinley, a badge checker stationed on boardwalk at the 19th Street beach, said the new system would make his job easier.

“It will take the hassle out of going up to people and asking to see their badges,” he said. “They're more OK with it up here. On the beach, they don't like to be hassled.”

But the new system also could eliminate McKinley's job. Last year, Ocean City spent more than $282,000 to pay 170 badge checkers. Jonathan Baltuch, whose Atlanta-based Marketing Resources Inc. is helping the city plan the system, estimated the new gear could cut that cost in half.

Nationwide, nearly 20 coastal municipalities have wireless Internet systems, mostly in California and Florida, according to the Web site MuniWireless.com. But few, if any, boast the kind of features Ocean City is planning.

The system Ocean City is envisioning should be relatively easy to build and operate, said Esme Vos, MuniWireless' founder. The wide, unobstructed beach, combined with relatively few trees and almost no tall buildings to interfere with wireless signals, all work in Ocean City's favor, Baltuch said.

Ocean City would use a combination of Wi-Fi to provide Internet access, and RFID, which is the type of tracking technology that libraries and department stores use to make sure no one sneaks books or merchandise out the door.

One feature of the planned technology should prove itself popular with parents — the ability to link one wristband to others. A mother going to the beach with three small children, for instance, could have her bracelet linked to those of her children.

If one of them passes an electronic sensor at the entrance or exit to the boardwalk without the right adult, a text message would instantly be sent to her cell phone.

“I've helped lost children try to find their parents on the beach, and that would be a great thing,” Kinloch said. “It's easy for them to stray off. You only turn your head for a second, and they can be gone. It does happen.”

Even the trash cans on this beach would be high-tech. Special solar-powered units would have sensors that, when the container is three-quarters full, would automatically send an e-mail to the public works department asking a worker to come empty them.

And parking lots near the beach would have signs that would tell drivers the location and number of open spots.

The network would be owned by the city but paid for by a vendor. The city has requested proposals from interested companies, and hopes to award a contract by early September.

The network would enable city officials to know exactly how many people are on the beach at a particular time.

“They can see that at 1:30, there are 60,000 people on the beach, and say ‘Hey, we need to get some more police into that area,' ” said Baltuch, the consultant.

He estimated the network could generate $14 million in revenue for the city over the first five years, and $12 million for the company that operates it, through user fees and advertisements to be sold on the network.

 

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