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Telecommunications companies raise some “valid criticisms,” says Richardson, namely, that the local government is using tax dollars to build what could amount to unfair competition, since they wouldn’t have to pay taxes on the revenue, if the city decides to charge a monthly fee for its Wi-Fi service.

“But at the end of the day, the U.S. is in pitiful shape with regards to broadband,” Richardson says, citing a just-released figure that shows the nation ranks 16th in the world for broadband penetration. “The U.S. needs to remain competitive. And if cities are motivated to lay broadband down, they should be allowed to.”

Verizon released no official comment about the Philadelphia compromise, saying only that “both parties agreed that they would not disclose details nor make a copy [of the agreement] available.”

This sudden battle over Wi-Fi has gone national, too. A couple of opposing bills are working their way through Congress. The “Preserving Innovation in Telecom Act of 2005” (H.R. 2726), sponsored by Representative Pete Sessions (R-TX), would make it more difficult for cities to implement wireless plans. An opposing bill, the “Community Broadband Act of 2005” (S. 1294), sponsored by Senator Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Senator McCain (R-AZ), would give municipalities more leeway in building Wi-Fi zones.

Despite the push by many cities to become wireless havens, however, not every city is joining the rush. Orlando, FL ended its 17-month Wi-Fi trial run in June, citing a lack of interest in the technology and the monthly upkeep costs.

Richard MacKinnon, president of the Austin Wireless City project, a grassroots-led effort to set up Wi-Fi zones in key parts of downtown Austin, says cities shouldn’t just leap into wireless efforts.

“At a minimum, you have to ask whether you want to build the system because there are people downtown who want it, or if you want to build the system to bring people downtown,” MacKinnon says. Austin Wireless studied potential hotspot locations and worked with local businesses to set up the technology. Currently, wide swaths of downtown areas are wireless from their efforts.

Philadelphia’s Neff agrees: “Communities have to look at what’s right for them…But everyone should have a wireless strategy. Mobility is the future. Roads helped determine where city growth was, and Wi-Fi will help determine that [growth] in the future.”

[Editor’s Note: In 2004, while he was the director of new media at VTV: Varsity Television, an independent cable network, technologyreview.com editor Brad King helped set up a wireless streaming test project with Austin’s MacKinnon.]

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