City to seek proposals for a wireless network

Request is first step in Internet service

June 27, 2006|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore has drafted a skeleton proposal to bring wireless Internet to neighborhoods across the city and will ask communication companies and other experts this week to weigh in with their own ideas, the first step in creating a citywide network similar to the one proposed for Philadelphia, officials said yesterday.

Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration expects to release a 16-page request for information to at least 20 companies to seek a broad range of proposals for bringing wireless Internet to Baltimore, said the city's technology advocate, Mario Armstrong. A principal goal is to provide affordable Internet access, especially in poor neighborhoods, he said.

Several major cities, including Philadelphia and San Francisco, have announced plans to offer wireless Internet access at below-market rates, but building those municipal networks has often proven a challenge. Some critics have questioned whether government should play a role in the largely private communications industry.

Armstrong said Baltimore is taking a more hands-off approach than other cities by painting broad strokes for how the city's network might work and asking communication companies, nonprofits and other experts to fill in the blanks. In its request, the city says it does not intend to use taxpayer funds.

"We're taking a totally different approach," Armstrong said. "From all accounts, it looks like this is a smarter way to go."

In its request, the city asks for ideas on how to offer Internet access to residential, business and government customers. Service would be delivered at below-market rates, and the network would be open to competition, meaning that no single company would have a monopoly on providing Internet service.

Responses are due Aug. 30. The "request for information," a tool used by government to formally seek ideas, was originally to have been distributed in May.

Baltimore's efforts come weeks after a company named Annapolis Wireless Internet announced it would build a network to offer free access throughout the capital this summer. The Annapolis network, which has been running in parts of the city since February, is to be paid for with advertising.

In the past several years, cities across the country have embraced the idea of wireless networks as a way to bring Internet access to low-income families. Alec Ross, senior vice president of the nonprofit organization One Economy, said Baltimore officials should similarly center their efforts on helping the poor.

"Baltimore has the benefit of having seen how other cities have taken on this issue," Ross said. "They're trying to do this with an initial focus of fighting poverty and making the city more economically competitive."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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