Going to Town With WiFi

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, April 19, 2007

On a chilly April day, the idea of wireless Internet access from a park bench seems overrated.

A connection in Arlington's Courthouse Plaza is free and fast, but it's too cold to type for long, the laptop's screen is too dim to see clearly and there's no power outlet nearby. At Farragut Square in the District, I encountered the same problems -- my laptop couldn't connect to the public-access signal at all.

Free WiFi in parks and other public places has become a popular way for cities to flaunt their tech credentials. But it's not practical, unless you happen to reside in the apartment building overlooking the free-wireless zone.

Wouldn't you rather pay for WiFi if it was reliable and widely available?

A growing number of local governments want to offer just that: They're inviting companies to sell wireless access throughout an entire city or county, using wireless transmitters in the public right of way.

This has the potential to do more than impress tech enthusiasts who take their laptops to lunch. Area-wide WiFi service could be the hammer that cracks open the broadband market and gives a choice beyond cable and DSL.

New Orleans and Philadelphia already have wireless service available, and many other cities, including Houston and San Francisco, have announced such plans. In the Washington area, an EarthLink-operated network is scheduled to go online by this fall in Alexandria. Arlington's County Board will vote on a similar proposal from EarthLink this Saturday.

All of these networks run the same basic way. An Internet provider hangs wireless transmitters off streetlight poles and government buildings. These transmitters, in turn, connect wirelessly to a smaller number of network hubs -- meaning that nobody needs to spend years stringing new wires along every street in town.

Customers might be able to use their computers' existing wireless receiver if they're within 100 feet or so of these transmitters, but most will need a special receiver if they are farther away.

These services compete well with other broadband offerings. In Alexandria and Arlington, EarthLink plans to charge $21.95 a month -- the same as for its dial-up service-- for an always-on connection with downloads and uploads of 1 million bits per second.

Verizon's cheapest DSL costs $14.99 a month and offers slightly slower downloads. Comcast's cheapest cable-modem service starts at $42.95 a month for far faster downloads. Both Comcast and Verizon, however, fall well short of this wireless service's upload speeds, something their subscribers can observe every time they publish a photo or video to the Web.

When a connection this fast and this cheap becomes available to everybody in a city, you can expect people to shop around. Dial-up users might want to upgrade; broadband customers might opt to pay less for a slower connection that works beyond their house. EarthLink says it also has gained some customers who used to pay $60 or $80 to their cellphone carrier to log on with a wireless card in their laptop.

An area-wide wireless network can be an even better deal for the governments involved. They spend nothing upfront for such benefits as a cash payment (at least $42,500 a year for Alexandria), discounted wireless access for their own employees, and free access in libraries, parks and other public facilities.

Their biggest gain, however, may be not having to build a wireless network with taxpayer dollars. "That's a $1.9 million capital investment," said Craig Fifer, Alexandria's e-government manager.

So if municipal wireless is so great, why isn't it everywhere?

Political pressure is one factor. Incumbent telecom carriers spent a long time trying to block these projects. For example, in 2005 SBC (now AT&T) and Verizon backed an unsuccessful bill in Texas that would have banned cities there from offering wireless access.

But the bigger issue remains the laws of physics and economics. Wireless Internet services only make money when enough customers live within range of the transmitters.

EarthLink, for example, usually looks only at markets with "over about 2,500 homes per square mile and . . . over 100,000 households," said Don Berryman, president of the company's municipal-wireless subsidiary.

Data from the 2000 Census indicate that much of the Washington area outside the District, Alexandria and Arlington wouldn't measure up. For example, in Fairfax County, Seven Corners exceeds that 2,500 homes-per-square mile threshold, but Tysons Corner falls short. In Montgomery County, Takoma Park would qualify but Potomac would be left out.

At best, most local jurisdictions would have to choose between accepting better connectivity for only some of their citizens or declining municipal wireless altogether.

Until the range of wireless connections improves drastically, cheap wireless access may remain something like being able to walk to work: a luxury valued by people who live in or near the city, but denied to those who want a bigger lot or can't afford to move any closer in.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com.

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