Municipal Wi-Fi Catches On in U.S. Cities

The municipal Wi-Fi market is picking up as Philadelphia and a handful of California cities embrace free citywide Wi-Fi services.

Municipal Wi-Fi networks are making headway in the United States, with Philadelphia closing a major contract for citywide wireless service, and a couple of California cities announcing their plans for free municipal Wi-Fi.

Philadelphia officials have finalized a contract with service provider Earthlink, wherein Earthlink will own and operate the Wi-Fi service that will serve Philadelphia residents, covering 135 square miles, according to Earthlink officials.

Pending city council approval, the service is expected to go live within a year, according to officials at Tropos Networks, the company in charge of Wi-Fi hardware in the deployment.

Philadelphia officials have yet to announce pricing for the upcoming service, but a business plan on the citys Web site says that the service should be "lower than current cable and DSL subscription costs."

The same business plan gives a target retail price of $16 to $20 per month for residential service with possible discounts for low-income residents, and $50 to $60 for premium business service, the latter of which will offer higher speeds.

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The idea of municipal Wi-Fi gained national attention at the end of 2004 when Verizon, the incumbent broadband Internet service provider, fought Philadelphias plan.

Verizon successfully pushed for passage of a bill that gives incumbent carriers the right to prevent Pennsylvania cities from creating and charging for municipal Wi-Fi.

Philadelphia dropped its opposition of the bill in exchange for being exempt from it; city officials maintain that the city would have been exempt anyway, because Earthlink, and not Philadelphia, officially owns the network.

"If it hadnt been for [Verizon] getting so defensive, the market may not have picked up so fast," said Ron Sege, CEO of Tropos, adding that he knows of more than 190 cities considering metro-scale Wi-Fi in 2006.

Regarding various state-level initiatives to limit municipal Wi-Fi deployments, "Its a total Whack-a-Mole game," Sege said.

Earthlink, for its part, also has won a deal to run a municipal Wi-Fi network in Anaheim, Calif., and is a finalist for proposed networks in Portland, Ore. and Minneapolis.

Meanwhile, small service provider Metrofi on January 30 and 31 announced free Wi-Fi services in the Silicon Valley cities of Santa Clara and Cupertino, Calif.

In Santa Clara, free service is now available across the 95050 and 95051 ZIP codes from 180 wireless access points, Metrofi officials said, with plans to expand service to other parts of the city throughout the year.

In Cupertino, free Wi-Fi is now available across the 95014 ZIP code from more than 100 access points, with plans to expand.

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