Baltimore WiFi, at last

May 02, 2006

Finally, there is a concrete sign from Baltimore's City Hall of real interest in moving forward on providing free or cheap wireless Internet access across the city - something that we've been encouraging as good for marketing the city, for aiding its economic development and, if done right, for improving opportunities for low-income residents.

Baltimore this week will issue a formal "request for ideas," asking companies, nonprofits and citizens for best practices that could be incorporated in a Baltimore-wide WiFi service, says Mario Armstrong, the city's designated "technology advocate." These ideas will be used to model a citywide system that could be running, at least in part, by the end of this year, he says.

Baltimore is a bit tardy in joining the movement by cities and counties across the country to provide, by one means or another, WiFi. Jurisdictions from San Francisco, where Google plans to build a free system, to 900-square-mile Suffolk County, on New York's Long Island, are rushing to offer wireless Internet access. In Maryland, an Annapolis firm announced last week it will offer free, citywide wireless by this summer - with the goal of becoming the first such system entirely paid by advertising.

But Mr. Armstrong insists that Baltimore's WiFi initiative is only now moving ahead because city planners have taken time to properly sort through the issues - particularly including how such systems can bridge the so-called digital divide, the gap between rich and poor as to Internet access. In that vein, one good idea that should be expanded is the Baltimore Digital Access Fund, a small loan program through Harbor Bank that enables public housing residents to purchase personal computers and set up Internet connections.

The city should move quickly from now on, however. While not yet evident here, in many other cities the big providers of higher-speed Internet connections have launched resistance to free municipal WiFi systems. At the same time, however, interest from a wide range of other firms in setting up wireless systems at no cost to taxpayers - and supported by ads - is gaining steam.

As a result, it seems that there may be an opening for Baltimore to develop a citywide WiFi network without any toll on the budget - an opportunity the city should take full advantage of.

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