Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz’s plan for a city-spanning wireless network recently hit a setback. Sky-Cable TV/America Online, who received the city’s bid approval for the project in February, recently pulled out on the deal.

Negotiations with AOL were moving forward and making “good progress,” mayoral spokesperson George Twigg said, until officials learned “very abruptly” that the corporation decided against investing in the Madison and Dane County market.

“We were totally taken by surprise,” Twigg said, adding AOL decided to not pursue WiFi technology on a “national basis” or to invest in owning infrastructure.

In the statement, AOL said the company will continue to explore alternative broadband initiatives, but that, at this time, the company is focusing on “partnering with established network operators rather than building out the networks on our own.”

Citing a “national strategic shift” in alternative broadband plans, the company will no longer participate in the WiFi plan with Madison, Dane County and the state of Wisconsin, the release read.

But Cieslewicz stated he will continue to pursue the plan, a part of his Healthy City Initiative, despite facing a likely setback from fall operation.

“The mayor continues to think this is a really good idea. … It will be a benefit to students and everybody who services the downtown area,” Twigg said.

Currently, there is no projected schedule for the plan’s next stages, Twigg said.

“Everything is going to depend on what we do next,” Twigg said. “We want to make sure that it will make sense. We’re going to take a fresh look.”

City officials, as well as others in Dane County government and the Doyle administration, plan to go through “all options” to determine the next course for the wireless implementation.

Possibilities include reviewing previous bid proposals or running a new Request For Proposal (RFP) to contract a new provider. AOL beat out SBC Communications and InSite Wireless in the city’s RFP process in February.

Contract negotiations were still underway when AOL pulled out of the initiative, but much of the wireless plan’s preliminary work is complete. A number of sites have been surveyed for wireless transmitters and much of the legal contract work is done.

“We’re not going back to step one, but, unfortunately, it will [be] a bit longer before we see this up and running,” Twigg said.

Dane County officials continue to support the WiFi plan and will pursue implementing wireless access at the Dane County airport, Lesley Sillaman, spokeswoman for County Executive Kathleen Falk, said.

The airport will serve as a starting point to grow the wireless technology and serve the regional interest from visitors and residents, she said.

“[The airport] is a county facility, and we hear the most from travelers that WiFi access is a priority,” Sillaman said, adding officials are disappointed with AOL’s recent decision, given the amount of work that has been completed.

Sillaman cited interest from WiFi providers to move into the area, and now the city, county and state must look at all options before negotiating with another wireless company.

The wireless service would not cost the city or county. Users would instead pay a fee — covering daily use or extended periods of time — to use the service, and downtown residents could use the service as their sole Internet provider.