Wireless Baltimore

October 07, 2005

In 2003, when the city of Baltimore unveiled a Wi-Fi hot spot along the Inner Harbor - allowing free public Internet access - Baltimore was ranked 31st in Intel's first "Most Unwired Cities Survey." But in the third edition of that survey, released last summer, Baltimore dropped 13 notches.

It's somewhat surprising that Baltimore's fall in the standings wasn't greater - given that the city hasn't aggressively moved forward to expand wireless availability, while hundreds of communities across the country, towns large and small, are rushing to blanket themselves with free or low-cost wireless Internet access.

About a year ago, Baltimore's official "technology advocate," Mario Armstrong, said he was starting work on an Internet plan for the city. Yesterday, he said he's still working on that plan, talking with local telecommunication firms, and about to announce a new effort to provide computers and training in the city.

Meanwhile, the largest city to make the commitment so far, Philadelphia, announced Tuesday that it had cut a deal with a provider to build and manage the nation's largest Wi-Fi network, offering low-income residents service for $10 a month. The provider not only will finance the network, it also will share some revenue with the city - a seemingly good deal.

In San Francisco, a bunch of potential Internet-access providers have submitted bids to set up a citywide wireless network - with Google last week shifting the dynamics of the whole competition by offering to build the city a free-access network, an even better deal.

And according to reporting by Jamie Smith Hopkins in yesterday's Sun, rural Maryland communities - from Allegany County in the west to Worcester County on the Eastern Shore - are building their own wireless networks to better compete for economic development.

For-profit telecommunication companies, which nationally have been slow to spread affordable Internet access to rural and inner-city areas, have thrown up political resistance, of course, to municipal wireless plans. But they can still thrive by offering faster, more secure connections.

Other critics are skeptical. They question that such free networks are financially sustainable, worry that Wi-Fi technology will become quickly outdated, and point out that such networks won't connect low-income residents to the Internet without additional investments in computers and training.

But that's a bit like saying, "What good is electricity if some folks don't yet have appliances?" And make no mistake, high-speed broadband access is fast becoming just as fundamental to the health of local economies as adequate power, water and transportation.

Baltimore is the core of one of the wealthiest and most educated states in the nation. It can't afford to get left behind on spreading broadband. It should move faster toward a citywide network.

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