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Philadelphia Plan Would Give WiFi Access to the Whole City

Free or Cheap Wireless Service Could Threaten Businesses

By David B. Caruso
Associated Press
Thursday, September 2, 2004; Page E03

PHILADELPHIA -- Forget finding an Internet cafe. For less than what it costs to build a small library, city officials believe they can turn all 135 square miles of Philadelphia into the world's largest wireless Internet hot spot.

The ambitious plan under discussion would involve placing thousands of small transmitters around the city, probably atop lampposts. Each of these wireless hot spots would be capable of communicating with the WiFi network cards that come standard with many computers.

Vince Veneziani uses a wireless connection to access the Internet in a Philadelphia park. A city plan calls for a network of wireless transmitters. (Joseph Kaczmarek -- AP)

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Once complete, the $10 million network would deliver broadband Internet almost anywhere radio waves can travel, including neighborhoods where high-speed Internet access is now rare.

The city would likely offer the service either for free or at costs far lower than the $35 to $60 a month charged for broadband delivered over telephone and cable TV lines, said the city's chief information officer, Dianah Neff.

"If you're out on your front porch with a laptop, you could dial in, register at no charge, and be able to access a high-speed connection," Neff said.

If the plan becomes a reality, Philadelphia would leap to the forefront of a growing number of cities already offering or considering a wireless broadband network for their residents, workers and guests.

Chaska, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis, began offering citywide wireless Internet access this year for $16 a month. The signal covers about 13 square miles.

Cleveland has added about 4,000 wireless transmitters in its University Circle, Midtown and lakefront districts. The service is free for anyone who passes through those areas. At 2:20 p.m. Tuesday, 1,016 people were logged in to the system, said Lev Gonick, chief information officer at Case Western Reserve University, which is spearheading the project and paying for part of it.

"We like to say it should be like the air you breathe -- free and available everywhere," Gonick said. "We look at this like PBS or NPR. It should be a public resource."

But free, citywide Internet access would appear to pose a competitive threat to businesses such as phone carrier Verizon Communications Inc. and cable provider Comcast Corp. Both companies have invested heavily in upgrading their networks to provide high-speed Internet connections for a monthly fee.

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