The wireless city

September 22, 2004

IN THE NATIONAL war among urban centers to revive themselves by luring technology companies and knowledge workers, Philadelphia has just fired a stunning salvo. Yes, Philadelphia -- and Baltimore ought to pay close attention.

The fifth-largest city in the country wants to become the first major American city to provide citywide wireless Internet access free or at low cost. Philadelphia officials are talking seriously about spending $10 million to cover all of the city's 135 square miles with thousands of short-range Wi-Fi transmitters, thereby turning itself into one big wireless hot spot.

Across the nation, small zones of wireless broadband access --free or for a fee -- are spreading like wildfire. They're common around universities, libraries, coffee shops and fast-food joints. Anyone with a laptop computer or handheld device with a wireless modem can go online while roaming.

Increasingly, governments also are jumping aboard the Wi-Fi bandwagon, primarily for use by public safety agencies but also to accelerate the spread of high-speed Internet connections. In Taiwan, the city of Taipei -- with more than 3 million residents on more than 100 square miles -- boasts total Wi-Fi coverage. The local utility system in Walla Walla, Wash., has been running a largely rural Wi-Fi system covering 1,500 square miles. But mainly in the United States so far, only a few small cities -- such as Chaska, Minn., and Cerritos, Calif. -- or limited areas of large cities have been turned into Wi-Fi hot spots.

Philadelphia likely is a harbinger of the future; there's similar talk of a citywide system in Boston. That's because if ubiquitous broadband access is now considered critical to economic development, it's much quicker and cheaper to rig wireless than landline access via cable or DSL -- $75,000 a square mile vs. about $1 million.

A Wi-Fi system for compact Baltimore's 80 square miles might cost about $6 million. The emerging technology of much-longer-range wireless, known as Wi-Max, might even be much cheaper. Area foundations, are you listening?

For the money, the city would bridge the so-called digital divide by bringing cheap broadband to poor neighborhoods and at the same time brand itself as a 21st-century place to live and do business. The only downside is the potential impact on commercial Internet providers. But so far, Comcast, Philadelphia's (and Baltimore's) cable Internet provider, says the details remain unclear, but city-sponsored Wi-Fi could complement its landline services.

Baltimore, of course, has tried to position itself as tech-savvy with its "digital harbor" campaign, a less-prominent label now than a few years ago. And a year ago, the city itself helped set up "Baltimore UnWired," a wireless demonstration zone stretching around the Inner Harbor from the Maryland Science Center to the World Trade Center.

There's been no public talk of extending that zone citywide, but Baltimore's official technology advocate, Mario Armstrong, says he's just now starting work on a wireless strategic plan for the city. A city-sponsored, citywide hot spot would be a bold step, and city officials and foundations concerned about Baltimore's future ought to give this technological leap strong consideration.

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