District to Seek Wireless Internet That Aids Poor

By Arshad Mohammed
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 9, 2006

The D.C. government is preparing to ask companies to bid on building a wireless Internet system through much of the city, including free service for low-income residents.

But unlike other municipalities such as Philadelphia and San Francisco that have commissioned such networks city-wide, the District plans to give its contract to the company that goes furthest in serving low-income residents with free Web access and even free computers and training.

The District's unusual approach means the network might not cover the entire city, leaving some areas unable to get the wireless service, which is expected to carry a monthly fee in higher-income zones.

"Access to technology is like access to books: it's an important medium of communication and learning and opportunity," Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said yesterday in an interview. "Other cities are doing it and I want our city doing it too."

Williams said he was not worried that some areas might get left out. "I think there is sufficient market incentive to serve the other areas of the city. The problem is there isn't sufficient market incentive to serve the lowest-income parts of our city, and that's what I am trying to do here."

The District plans to give the winning company an exclusive, eight-year franchise to attach wireless devices to District-owned street lights and buildings. It will also give the winner some access to the District's private fiber-optic network free of charge to carry wireless traffic on toward the Internet. No tax dollars are to be involved, D.C. officials said.

Bidding companies may submit plans for where they would build the network, how they may charge paying customers and what speeds they will offer them. Depending on how companies respond, their paying customers could, in effect, subsidize free access for the poor.

"The essential evaluation factor will be: The more digital divide clients that you propose to serve within the first three years . . . the higher your ranking will be in the selection process," D.C. Deputy Chief Technology Officer Peter Roy, who is writing the District's request for proposals, said in an interview.

Roy said he hoped construction could begin by the end of this year -- while Williams is still in office -- and said large parts of it could be operational within nine months.

In recent years companies have devised the technology to spread a "cloud" of wireless Internet connectivity using shoe-box-size radio transmitters mounted on street lights. The systems are like the "WiFi" hotspots found in many coffee shops and airport waiting lounges, but they spread the Internet connection across a metropolitan area.

Such networks can be rolled out much more quickly and cheaply than the traditional, time-consuming process of running copper wires, coaxial cables and fiber-optic lines to homes and offices.

Municipal wireless networks have stirred up controversy in Congress and in state legislatures partly because phone and cable companies argue it is unfair to force them to compete with networks that may be supported by a municipality.

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