Chicago plans huge wi-fi network

The nationwide rush to go wireless appears poised to extend toits biggest city yet. Chicago is launching an effort to offerwireless broadband, city officials said Friday, jumping on theWi-Fi bandwagon as similar initiatives proceed in Philadelphia, SanFrancisco and smaller cities.

Chicago has hundreds of Wi-Fi hotspots in places like coffeeshops, bookstores and libraries, where anyone can walk in, sit downand connect to the Web. Hoping to extend that wireless blanket toall 600 square kilometres, the city plans to ask technologycompanies this spring to submit proposals for the project.

While it’s too soon to say how the system would operate, thegoal is to make Internet access “broad and affordable” forresidents and heighten Chicago’s appeal for businesses and touristsalike, according to Chris O’Brien, the city’s chief informationofficer.

The city did not specify goals for how much the system wouldcharge for access. In Philadelphia, EarthLink Inc. is building acitywide network that will charge a wholesale rate of $9 (U.S.) amonth to Internet service providers that would then resell accessto the public at an undetermined price.

“We think it’s important for residents of the city and touristsand businesses to have lots of different ways to connect,” O’Briensaid. “For a city as big as Chicago, with the vibrant businesscommunity and diverse citizen base that we have, you want to makesure all kinds of technology are available to them as they work andenjoy entertainment options.”

If all goes smoothly, the system could be running as soon as2007, O’Brien said. That would all but certainly leave the citybehind Philadelphia, which hopes to have its entire system in placelate this year or early next year. But the size of a Chicagonetwork would dwarf Philadelphia’s planned 350-square-kilometrenetwork or anything now in place.

Currently, the biggest municipal Wi-Fi network is the all-freeMetroFi in the south San Francisco Bay area at 90 squarekilometres, according to Wi-Fi expert Glenn Fleishman. By spring,that title will be passed to one covering nearly 290 squarekilometres in the neighbouring Phoenix suburbs of Tempe andChandler, Ariz., he said.

Cities’ race to get into municipal broadband is beingincreasingly embraced by Internet service providers, since mostcities are enlisting private companies to help build the wirelesssystems rather than doing it on their own. EarthLink created adivision last year to solicit deals similar to Philadelphia’s withthe 50 largest cities.

Cities besides Philadelphia that have put Wi-Fi projects out forproposals in the last four months alone, according to EarthLink,include Portland, Ore.; San Francisco, Anaheim, Pasadena and LongBeach, Calif.; Denver and Aurora, Colo.; Minneapolis; Milwaukee;Grand Rapids, Mich.; Pittsburgh; Arlington, Va.; and Brookline,Mass.

Rather than viewing the cities’ efforts as competition, said DonBerryman, president of Earthlink’s municipal networks division:”This allows us to build our own network and provide broadbandservice anywhere we want and not have to work through the Bellcompany or the cable company, so it gives us a lot of freedom.”

Chicago’s main phone company, AT&T, says it similarlywould not be opposed to a city-initiated effort.

“AT&T always has believed that the best approach is tostimulate investment in broadband,” spokesman Rick Fox said. “Aslong as you’re working with the private sector, that’s a goodthing.”

The idea of a citywide Wi-Fi network got a big thumbs-up fromseveral Chicagoans who were sitting in cafes with their laptopsFriday.

“I’m always searching for Internet hotspots,” said Beibei Que, alaw student getting in some work at a coffee shop. “I like to havethe Net at my fingertips wherever I go.”

Kate Harper, who works mostly out of her home, said she wouldwelcome the chance to get on-line elsewhere. “It’s nice to be ableto go out and sit somewhere and get connected,” she said.

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