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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 December 2005, 08:37 GMT
Wi-fi venture tests Philadelphia
Ian Hardy
By Ian Hardy
BBC Click Online North America technology correspondent

Ian Hardy reports from the US, where a city government had to fight hard to go wireless.

Woman using wireless laptop in a station
High speed wi-fi is on the horizon
Wireless Philadelphia is a project that has been in development for several years, but which will not be finished until late 2006.

It seems such an agreeable proposition to everybody involved - cheap wi-fi for an entire city.

"A citizen will pay a base fee of $10 or $20 depending upon their income status, for access to the network," explained the city's chief information officer, Dianah Neff.

However, the project has stirred up a hornet's nest, and has implications for the whole of America.

Hot zones

Currently there are just hot zones around Philadelphia offering free wi-fi service, acting as test areas.

There is a question here about whether the competition is fair when the government has advantages of borrowing money, owning and perhaps giving away real estate access, regulating and taxing us
Eric Rabe, Verizon
The bulk of the actual hardware needed to cover the 135-square-mile metro area is yet to be installed.

The routers, usually mounted on street lighting fixtures, can be placed anywhere high up where there is a power supply. Some 3,000 of the devices will eventually make up a mesh network.

"What is very different about a mesh, versus a cellular network, is that we get the radios very close to where the customer is," said Chris Rittler of Tropos Networks.

"What this does is actually pretty amazing. It enables off-the-shelf devices such as laptops, PDAs and wi-fi phones to connect easily. It also really reduces the requirements on those devices."

Big ideas

Philadelphia is by no means the first place in the US to do this, but with 1.5 million people it is the biggest.

General view of Philadelphia
Philadelphia compares municipal wi-fi to the city's water and electricity
Other locations include Alexandria in Virginia, Jamestown in New York, and Rio Rancho in New Mexico.

Philadelphia differs from the usual model of municipal wi-fi because it has entered into a profit-sharing, private-public sector partnership.

It chose the ISP EarthLink to provide the set-up and maintenance costs, as well as the billing services. The initial outlay is estimated at $15 million.

When Dianah Neff announced the project she faced an immediate legal and lobbying onslaught from the giant telecommunications companies, led by Verizon.

It was alarmed that the government of America's fifth largest city was getting involved in wi-fi at all, and that the fees would be a fraction of the cost of a private fast internet connection, typically around $45-60 per month when bundled with a mandatory landline telephone service.

"There is a question here about whether the competition is fair when the government has advantages of borrowing money, owning and perhaps giving away real estate access, regulating and taxing us," said Eric Rabe of Verizon.

"If you are in a position where you can regulate and tax your competitor, it certainly gives you an advantage. That is a whole fairness question that I think ought to be worked through and thought about."

Digital divide

Verizon lost its fight in Philadelphia but has succeeded in getting the law changed in the rest of the state.

Essentially it has become almost impossible for any other community to set up its own wi-fi system.

Several other states have also enacted similar bans, often supported by local politicians who have connections to telecommunications corporations.

However Philadelphia says that too many low income families cannot afford high broadband prices and the service is needed to shrink the digital divide between rich and poor.

The city now sees internet access as an essential service just like street lighting and sanitation.

But governments are not the only ones that have seen the huge opportunities ahead.

There are also non-telecommunications companies willing to set up entire networks.


Google is planning to provide free wi-fi access to Mountain View in California.

Google logo with people walking past
Google is next in line to provide free wi-fi access in California
The reason is simple - any company that owns the login page of a local wi-fi network can cover it with profit-generating links and advertisements.

In Philadelphia the login page belongs to Philadelphia Cloud.

"They get to see everything around them, so they get presented with information from hotels nearby, from the museums, coffee shops and restaurants," said Bailey White of Philadelphia Cloud.

"We are actually finding that several people are saying 'you know what, this is great. I didn't know about those things and I'm really happy to be here and take advantage of those activities'."

More and more people are hearing about citywide wi-fi and the newer more powerful technology called Wimax, if only because of the political and corporate battles going on across the country.

But as they do, the reaction amongst residents is, perhaps surprisingly, not clear cut.

What is certain is that everybody will be watching the Philadelphia experiment to see if it becomes a big success or mess.

Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two and BBC News 24 as part of BBC Breakfast: Saturday at 0645. Also BBC World.

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