Chicago pulls plug on city Wi-Fi project

Chicago municipal leaders have scrapped plans to blanket the city with an ambitious Wi-Fi network, citing high costs and low residential uptake as the main reasons.

Early last year Chicago announced plans to blanket a 228 square mile area with a Wi-Fi network. At the time, Chicago had hoped to become one of the largest U.S. cities to offer blanket access to the Internet.

However, it seems that its negotiations with private-sector partners, including EarthLink, have stalled because any city-wide Wi-Fi would require massive public financing. The city had hoped to provide only infrastructure for the network.

“We realized, after much consideration, that we needed to re-evaluate our approach to provide universal and affordable access to high-speed Internet as part of the city’s broader digital inclusion efforts,” said Chicago’s chief information officer, Hardik Bhatt, in a statement.

“But given the rapid pace of changing technology, in just two short years, the marketplace has altered significantly,” he added.

The announcement makes Chicago the latest in a number of municipalities in the U.S. to encounter troubles with their Wi-Fi initiatives, mostly because of technical glitches and rising budgets, as well as dwindling usage as the cost of consumer access in the U.S. steadily falls.

Indeed, U.S. ISP EarthLink, which has heavily invested in Wi-Fi in recent years, has been struggling financially and has just announced it will slash about half its workforce, with some 900 staff being let go as part of a sweeping cost-cutting exercise.

Currently about 175 U.S. cities or regions have city-wide or partial systems. In the U.K., cities such as Brighton and Norwich have free Wi-Fi networks, although question marks have been raised about the health implications of wireless networks, especially when located in schools.

But despite the cancellation of the Wi-Fi network, it seems that Chicago residents will still be able to enjoy Internet access on the move, as the city will be among the first in the U.S. to gain access to a new Wi-Max network being built by Sprint Nextel.

The service will differ from the municipal Wi-Fi approach, which uses thousands of overlapping Wi-Fi service zones to provide blanket coverage over a municipal area. A Wi-Max signal, on the other hand, can blanket a much wider area than a traditional Wi-Fi signal, which is limited to a couple of hundred yards. In the U.K., Pipex Wireless has rolled out trial Wi-Max networks in Milton Keynes, Warwick and Leamington Spa.

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