TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Chicago Gears up For Wireless Broadband

Chicago Gears up For Wireless Broadband

Dave Carpenter (
Sat, 18 Feb 2006 13:43:15 -0600

By DAVE CARPENTER, AP Business Writer

The nationwide rush to go wireless appears poised to extend to its
biggest city yet. Chicago is launching an effort to offer wireless
broadband, city officials said Friday, jumping on the Wi-Fi bandwagon
as similar initiatives proceed in Philadelphia, San Francisco and
smaller cities.

Chicago has hundreds of Wi-Fi hotspots in places like coffee shops,
bookstores and libraries, where anyone can walk in, sit down and
connect to the Web. Hoping to extend that wireless blanket to all 228
square miles, the city plans to ask technology companies this spring
to submit proposals for the project.

While it's too soon to say how the system would operate, the goal is
to make Internet access "broad and affordable" for residents and
heighten Chicago's appeal for businesses and tourists alike, according
to Chris O'Brien, the city's chief information officer.

The city did not specify goals for how much the system would charge
for access. In Philadelphia, EarthLink Inc. is building a citywide
network that will charge a wholesale rate of $9 a month to Internet
service providers that would then resell access to the public at an
undetermined price.

"We think it's important for residents of the city and tourists and
businesses to have lots of different ways to connect," O'Brien
said. "For a city as big as Chicago, with the vibrant business
community and diverse citizen base that we have, you want to make sure
all kinds of technology are available to them as they work and enjoy
entertainment options."

If all goes smoothly, the system could be running as soon as 2007,
O'Brien said. That would all but certainly leave the city behind
Philadelphia, which hopes to have its entire system in place late this
year or early next year. But the size of a Chicago network would
dwarf Philadelphia's planned 135-square-mile network or anything now
in place.

Currently, the biggest municipal Wi-Fi network is the all-free MetroFi
in the south San Francisco Bay area at 35 square miles, according to
Wi-Fi expert Glenn Fleishman. By spring, that title will be passed to
one covering nearly 110 square miles in the neighboring Phoenix
suburbs of Tempe and Chandler, Ariz., he said.

Cities' race to get into municipal broadband is being increasingly
embraced by Internet service providers, since most cities are
enlisting private companies to help build the wireless systems rather
than doing it on their own. EarthLink created a division last year to
solicit deals similar to Philadelphia's with the 50 largest cities.

Cities besides Philadelphia that have put Wi-Fi projects out for
proposals in the last four months alone, according to EarthLink,
include Portland, Ore.; San Francisco, Anaheim, Pasadena and Long
Beach, Calif.; Denver and Aurora, Colo.; Minneapolis; Milwaukee; Grand
Rapids, Mich.; Pittsburgh; Arlington, Va.; and Brookline, Mass.

Rather than viewing the cities' efforts as competition, said Don
Berryman, president of EarthLink's municipal networks division: "This
allows us to build our own network and provide broadband service
anywhere we want and not have to work through the Bell company or the
cable company, so it gives us a lot of freedom."

Chicago's main phone company, AT&T, (formerly SBC); says it similarly
would not be opposed to a city-initiated effort.

"AT&T always has believed that the best approach is to stimulate
investment in broadband," spokesman Rick Fox said. "As long as you're
working with the private sector, that's a good thing." This is
apparently a change of attitude for SBC which until its merger with
AT&T had been vehemently opposed to any municipally managed/owned
systems as being 'unfair' to telco.

The idea of a citywide Wi-Fi network got a big thumbs-up from several
Chicagoans who were sitting in cafes with their laptops Friday.

"I'm always searching for Internet hotspots," said Beibei Que, a law
student getting in some work at a coffee shop. "I like to have the Net
at my fingertips wherever I go."

Katy Harper, who works mostly out of her home, said she would welcome
the chance to get online elsewhere. "It's nice to be able to go out
and sit somewhere and get connected," she said.

Chicago officials haven't yet committed to specific goals for the
project, but they don't want to spend city funds. They have been
closely watching Philadelphia's project, including its priority on low
user costs and its intent to ensure that more computers and training
programs are available for low-income residents.

"Our main mission is to increase access and help overcome the digital
divide," said Robert Bright, board chairman of the Wireless
Philadelphia nonprofit group overseeing that initiative.

Fleishman said building a municipal Wi-Fi network as big as the ones
envisioned in Philadelphia and Chicago could be troublesome. He cited
issues surrounding the need for high-powered antennas and interference
from existing Wi-Fi networks.

"Once you get into dense urban environments, it's not that it won't
work but it's more problematic," he said. "Nobody's built a network of
this size."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.

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