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City Wi-Fi Sounds Great, If It Can Really Connect

Signal strength, capacity, and efforts by telecom vendors to stop cheap municipal wireless could threaten deployments from San Francisco to Chicago

Come one, come all. While Philadelphia finishes final rounds of approval for what would be the first major U.S. citywide wireless data network, many others are making plans. San Francisco last week posted six proposals on its Web site, including competing joint efforts by EarthLink-Google and IBM-Cisco. Chicago just disclosed plans to set up a wireless network, and dozens of cities nationwide are in various stages of planning. Even the Big Apple has convened a group to look into the possibility.

They should be ready for difficulties. City-subsidized municipal wireless, aimed at providing better services and a broadband connection to residents who otherwise couldn't get one because of cost or location, is in its earliest stages of development. The world's biggest municipal wireless rollout is Taipei, Taiwan, where 60,000 registered users log on over 3,300 access points in a 50-square-mile area. Philadelphia doesn't have final approval from its city council. With unproven technology and business models, cities face risks.

The Windy City could be wireless, too.

The Windy City could be wireless, too.
Signal strength is one issue. Hot-spot-happy Wi-Fi doesn't reach everywhere, and some cities are compromising. In a draft request for municipal Wi-Fi proposals issued Feb. 18, Houston said coverage need only reach into perimeter rooms and up to the second floors of buildings. Excluding those in high-rise buildings is hardly citywide access. Cities that want to go vertical may have to wait for WiMax, a technology that's still in development.

Cities also must be prepared for times when networks get flooded with visitors, a concern with some of the current bandwidth limitations of Wi-Fi access points. "People want reliable broadband that they can count on," Forrester Research analyst Ellen Daly says. "We're up for a pretty big reality check in the 2008 time frame, when a whole lot of these get rolled out."

EarthLink's plan to spend $10 million to $15 million to put access points throughout Philadelphia is still a big gamble, since it bets on people paying for Wi-Fi service, even if the city picks up some of the tab for low-income residents. Access points don't cost much, but managing them could be a different story. With 10,000 access points planned for Taipei, there's a lot of equipment to fix, upgrade, and maintain. And the hundreds of thousands of users in big U.S. cities will be heavy technical support loads.

Chicago will solicit bids from technology companies this spring to create a 228-square-mile hot-spot that blankets the city. One concern is whether the hundreds of Wi-Fi hot-spots already set up by businesses could interfere with a municipal network.

The contracts for Philadelphia's service are signed, but the city needs a final go-ahead from its council to install antennas on light posts and iron out the details on how it will work with EarthLink during the deployment.

Hit The Brakes

Legislation could yet stop some cities in their tracks. A Pennsylvania law pushed by Verizon, one of the telecom companies that could lose broadband customers to cheap municipal Wi-Fi, gives local carriers the right to block cities from setting up services. (They're letting Philly go ahead.) Last year, Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, introduced a federal bill to limit how city governments offer broadband services. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., this year followed Sessions' lead in his larger telecommunications bill. "You really need to understand what the political environment is in your state and city," Philadelphia CIO Dianah Neff warns.

While the phone companies view municipal Wi-Fi as a threat, those in the tech industry who see opportunity have political allies. Intel last year supported a rival bill from Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., to place decisions about local broadband networks in the hands of local councils.

All of this creates enough uncertainty for pause. Wireless everywhere is a great concept, but with millions of dollars at stake in each city, it had better work.

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