News Why not Wi-Fi? 

The City and AT&T are keeping their cards close, but some kind of wireless future seems likely

If you’ve purchased a new personal computer in the past two years or so, chances are you have access to wireless internet, thanks to a manufacturing trend of embedding wireless cards within the hardware. And if you’re lucky, when your new neighbors moved in and brought their wireless account with them, your PC lit up, suddenly and tantalizingly offering to let you surf the web, sans wires, for free. And while piggybacking might’ve been fun at first, after a while the guilt soured every Yo La Tengo track you purchased from iTunes, leaving you desperate for an easy, affordable, and honest way to get back on the ’net.

Try moving to Philadelphia, where City Hall, the Wireless Philadelphia non-profit corporation, and Earthlink have teamed up to turn the entire city into a wireless hot-spot. The initiative, suggested two years ago by Mayor John Street and Chief Information Officer Dianah Neff, began as a municipally owned network but, with Earthlink’s involvement, grew into a partnership with the goal of not only providing widespread wireless access, but also achieving a number of social aims in the process. In exchange for the exclusive citywide contract, Earthlink has agreed to provide 3,000 free government accounts and free access in 22 parks and other public spaces; offer Philadelphians digital inclusion accounts at a discounted cost of $9.95; and contribute a portion of its income from the whole Philadelphia deal to Wireless Philadelphia. That revenue, combined with Wireless Philadelphia’s independent fundraising, is set aside to help provide wireless equipment and education to school districts, retirement and nursing homes, back-to-work programs, and other community organizations.

Convincing any partner, major corporation or not, to agree to such concessions isn’t easy, but Wireless Philadelphia CEO Derek Pew claims it’s more luck and will than tricky negotiations. “We were lucky, in a sense, because our Request for Proposal was the first in North America. For Earthlink, Philadelphia is kind of a springboard for other projects, so that gave us some leverage. There were certain things we needed before we would proceed.” If Earthlink succeeds in de-wiring Philadelphia, it could lead to contracts with other major cities, both national and international. Locales as disparate as San Francisco, Boston, Rome, and Tai-Pei are planning or already have implemented citywide wireless networks, each with different models and motivations.

Will San Antonio be joining the ranks of the wi-fi illuminati anytime soon? Several spots around town offer free wireless access, but the limited range and power quail in comparison to the potential of a citywide network. According to Michael Armstrong, chief information officer for San Antonio, there’s a change ahead for the city and it’s one worth waiting for. “When we do it, we want to do it right. We don’t want to invest in technology now that we’ll have to replace a few years down the road,” says Armstrong, referring to the potential of wi-max technology, which is faster, stronger, covers a wider range than wi-fi, and is currently being used by some European cities.

And though waiting for the technology is a priority, according to Armstrong the implementation model is the biggest obstacle. Philadelphia’s private-public partnership and Corpus Christi’s closed wireless network, which allows instantaneous meter-reading for city-owned utilities, are two examples San Antonio is considering — along with the report of a telecom consultant, due in the next two weeks — before it makes a move. If only there was a local communications conglomerate that would be interested in joining the city to develop a wireless plan. Maybe one with offices all over downtown ...

Cue Jason Hillery, of AT&T. “AT&T has no contract with San Antonio right now, but we are looking at other Requests for Proposals from cities as the trend of local government-backed private-public participation grows. AT&T does have the extensive broadband capability to power a wi-fi network, especially in a downtown area.” Armstrong confirms that there have been talks with AT&T and Cingular, but nothing to celebrate yet.

The lack of a deal with either AT&T or Cingular isn’t entirely surprising, given the resistance Derek Pew and Wireless Philadelphia encountered from Comcast and Verizon, both of which have headquarters in Philadelphia. “Cable and phone companies were definitely opponents to the project,” says Pew, “but I think cable companies may eventually come around when they realize the opportunity wireless provides. Phone companies have a monopoly on last-mile solutions that they don’t want to give up. And in the future some will use wireless networks to make `Video Yellow Pages` phone calls because the speed is so much faster than DSL. They don’t like that, either.”

In the meantime, San Antonio is planning to de-wire Main Plaza and Hemisfair Park, and this summer will begin providing wireless access for the Central Library and all library branches. Will librarians be logging on to Instant Messenger to tell you in a firm, yet hushed, manner to “STFU?”


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