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Communications

Wi-Fi for the Masses

More cities and towns across the U.S. are signing up to build their own citywide wireless networks. But local telecommunications providers aren’t giving in without a fight.

People looking to relocate or planning a sight-seeing trip to a metro area may be adding another item to their checklists: Does the city offer wireless access?

Increasingly, the answer will be yes.

This month, San Francisco and New Haven, CT became the two latest major U.S. urban areas to take another step toward providing Wi-Fi (“wireless fidelity”) connections. They’ve submitted requests for proposals from technology companies and hired consultants.

And Philadelphia – the first major urban area to initiate a city government-led wireless program – just announced that it has narrowed its search for an Internet provider to two finalists: Earthlink and Hewlett-Packard. The service will be rolled out in “mid-October,” according to Dianah Neff, CIO of the city of Philadelphia.

Indeed, approximately 300 U.S. cities and municipalities are now in various stages of wireless rollouts – up from barely any just a year and a half ago.

Greg Richardson, founder of Civitium, an Atlanta-based organization that assists cities in their Wi-Fi efforts, sometimes uses the word “crazy” to describe this phenomenon. 

“Last year we saw a lot of small communities testing and piloting. This year there’s been an increase in the number of larger cities, and the speed with which they go through this process,” Richardson says. “Cities are becoming smarter about this, becoming more efficient about the process.”

A number of factors have come together to create this marriage of civic activism and a hot technology. First, there’s the decreased cost of key wireless hardware and software components. Jupiter Research estimates that citywide systems will cost $150,000 per square mile for five years of operation. Neff puts it lower, though, saying her costs in Philadelphia were closer to $70,000-100,000 per square mile.

Second, broadband penetration in the United States rose above 50 percent in fall 2004, for the first time, which “introduced the concept of broadband as a critical service,” says Richardson.

Third, many cities have been trying to get their local telecommunications providers to bring high-speed connectivity into low-income or remote areas – and getting rebuffed in their efforts.

“The digital divide is local,” says Neff. “Disadvantaged and dying neighborhoods are a local concern. We need to make sure we’re not leaving children and families behind in the 21st century.”

And, fourth, cities and towns are racing to implement municipal wireless systems – before doing so becomes illegal.

When Philadelphia announced its wireless intentions in spring 2004, Verizon, the city’s local telecommunications company, objected vigorously. Eventually, the two sides reached a compromise – but not before the state senate passed a bill that gave all municipalities in Pennsylvania until January 1, 2006, to start up their Wi-Fi projects. Any projects begun after that date must be offered first to the local incumbent provider for right of first refusal. Currently, 20 states have such incumbent-favoring legislation in debate or being proposed.

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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