Taking an early step toward providing wireless Internet access from the Inner Harbor to the city's poorest neighborhoods, Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration will review proposals by seven firms vying to build Baltimore's first citywide wireless Internet network.
Following Philadelphia, San Francisco and dozens of other cities that are blanketing neighborhoods with wireless networks, O'Malley has promoted the effort as a way to make Baltimore competitive and to bridge the divide between those who can afford high-speed Internet and those who cannot.
"It can be a tremendous help in advancing the justice agenda of connecting our poorer families and neighborhoods to the information age and giving them the access to the Internet that maybe they do not have," O'Malley said.
Baltimore's review of the preliminary proposals is sure to spark a debate about Wi-Fi that has played out in cities across the country. Municipal leaders have sought to weigh their desire to encourage an emerging technology that can help residents against questions about cost, long-term maintenance and consumer interest.
According to documents reviewed by The Sun, Ontario-based Nortel, which collaborated on one of the world's largest wireless networks in Taipei, Taiwan, is in the mix. Atlanta-based EarthLink and Illinois-based Motorola, which are both involved with building Philadelphia's network, also submitted proposals. One Baltimore-based company, BITHGROUP Technologies, applied.
Other companies that responded include Virginia-based COMTek, London-based National Grid Wireless and Michigan-based Azulstar.
Once built, the system would enable users of laptop and hand-held computers to access the Internet in public places, such as city parks. Residential and business customers could connect on personal computers - though the strength of the indoor signal is uncertain. Water, gas and parking meters could be designed to communicate with central computers for automated, off-sight readings.
Copying a model set by other cities, Baltimore demanded that communication companies - not taxpayers - pick up the cost of building and maintaining the network. None of the companies disclosed how much they would charge to connect to the Internet, though several said that some level of free or reduced-price access is likely.
"There will be the ability for everyone to have some sort of access," said Christopher Borek, senior business development manger with Azulstar. "We just feel that free access is such a powerful thing."
If Baltimore decides to move forward, the project likely would involve installing hundreds of radio antennas atop light poles and buildings to relay the signal through the city's 81 square miles. It is not clear how long it would take the city to choose a company or how long it would take that company to build the network.
Demand for high-speed Internet exists, including among residents who cannot afford services offered by cable and telephone companies. Jim Fragomeni, director of technology at the South Baltimore Learning Center, said residents use his organization's 17 public computers to check e-mail, visit entertainment Web sites and post messages on political blogs. The computers are available free of charge for about four hours every day.
"Basically, at its most successful extreme, it would make the Internet as ubiquitous as water and electricity," Fragomeni said of a wireless network.
A December 2005 study by NetDay, a national organization, found that 67 percent of Baltimore students in grades six through 12 identified homework as their main reason for using the Internet. Twenty-six percent of students in that study said they would pursue a career in technology.
A spokesman with Comcast, one of the largest providers of residential high-speed Internet in Baltimore, did not comment directly on the city's wireless initiative but said wired customers would enjoy faster, more secure connections and more comprehensive customer service.
"It's very early in the process," said John Lamontagne, a spokesman with the company's eastern division. "We will take time to review the RFI [request for information] ... and we'll keep a close eye on the process."
The companies that submitted responses in Baltimore have experience in wireless technology, though applying the technology to a citywide network is a relatively new concept. To date, no major U.S. metropolitan city has successfully deployed a wireless network that meets the specifications set by the O'Malley administration.
Critics say urban environments interfere with the wireless signal. Others suggest private companies - not local governments - should develop the service. One nagging issue: Offering cheap Internet service is useless if residents cannot afford a computer.