Wireless Web for housing sought

A city proposal would require Wi-Fi hookups in low-income units

October 10, 2005|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

New city-sponsored public and low-income housing units in Baltimore would be built Internet-ready - possibly with technology to supply wireless access to residents - under a proposal that advocates hope is a first step toward bringing the Digital Age to the living rooms of the city's poor.

The initiative, crafted by Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration, would require developers of multifamily, low-income housing to string cables and install routers as they build.

Having the hardware in place now, officials said, would make it easier to deliver high-speed Internet access later to housing communities and subsidized apartments. Wireless technology allows computer and portable-device users to access the Internet and e-mail without connecting a cable.

Cities across the nation are wrestling with how to approach the wireless craze as airports, courthouses and even fast-food chains are being "lit up" with broadband access. Philadelphia and San Francisco are moving forward with plans to build citywide wireless networks, even as telecommunication companies argue that private industry can do the job better and for less money.

The efforts, like Baltimore's, are geared in part at closing the digital divide between those who can afford to connect and those who cannot.

Advocates say the Internet is an increasingly crucial way for low-income residents to access services and information - from e-mail to classroom lessons to job listings.

"They need those tools," said Mario Armstrong, O'Malley's technology advocate. "This is a way to really have a broad impact."

The other main component of bringing the Internet to homes - the actual Internet service - is not included. Armstrong said the city is weighing whether to select Internet service providers or allow residents to pick their own.

Housing projects that receive city financial assistance would have to meet the new technology requirements, but the program would not apply retroactively to current units. Baltimore builds more than 300 rental units a year, said Christopher Shea, the city housing department's deputy commissioner for development.

"The spirit of this is to take down as many barriers and obstacles as possible," Shea said. "All the people involved in the project are aware of the importance of access."

Thirty-three states and Washington base decisions to offer certain tax incentives at least in part on whether developers are willing to pre-wire buildings for Internet access. But Baltimore's effort, which appears to be unusual, is aimed at lower-income residents.

The initiative could put Baltimore in step with other cities that have embraced broadband - cities that in some cases are pushing their way into uncharted legal and technical territory. The most prominent example, Philadelphia, recently selected Atlanta-based EarthLink Inc. to turn the entire 135-square-mile city into an Internet hot spot.

Dozens of other cities, meanwhile, are exploring and installing wireless systems. Some own and maintain the network. Others contract with private companies or encourage nonprofit organizations to take the lead. Many parks, airports, sports stadiums and convention centers also have gone wireless.

Critics, including the nation's largest telecommunications companies, say local governments shouldn't be in the business of building and maintaining the networks. In some cases, private companies have already installed those networks. In Baltimore, for example, Verizon Wireless offers citywide wireless access for about $60 a month.

Armstrong said the O'Malley administration does not intend to build a municipal network similar to Philadelphia's because of the potential expense and because the technology changes so fast that a network could quickly be out of date.

"This should be something that we're able to find private investment for," Armstrong said. "We've been patient not to jump on the Wi-Fi bandwagon. Just because other cities are doing this stuff doesn't necessarily mean it's the right thing to do."

Despite limited government involvement, a patchwork of private wireless sites has helped Baltimore keep pace with similarly sized cities.

Chip-maker Intel, in its annual "Most Unwired Cities Survey," ranks Baltimore 44th out of 100 cities for wireless access, ahead of Philadelphia but behind Washington. JiWire, an Internet site that tracks hot spots, lists 100 wireless sites in Baltimore, compared with 122 in Philadelphia and 207 in Washington.

Shea said the city is still developing its program to expand coverage to low-income residents. A housing department spokesman, David Tillman, said the city is working with a Washington nonprofit organization, One Economy, on the effort, but would not provide specifics about the group's involvement. The organization has supplied computers to low-income residents in other cities, according to its Web site.

City officials said they expect an announcement soon about the new effort, including more details about the wiring requirements.

Alec Ross, senior vice president of One Economy, would not discuss the city's plan.

Ross said one advantage of pre-wiring large buildings is that agencies can purchase Internet access in bulk, as businesses do. Generally, he said, it costs less than $300 a unit to install cable, routers and other components needed - a cost, he said, that is quickly absorbed by builders.

"You're talking about something that is exceedingly inexpensive," Ross said. "It's just smart public policy."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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