Intolerance: Fuss over Municipal WiFi in the USA

'Wireless Philadelphia' is a project that has been in development for several years, but which will not be finished until late 2006. It seems such an agreeable proposition to everybody involved -- cheap 'wi-fi' for an entire city...
'A citizen will pay a base fee of 10_USD or 20_USD depending upon their income status, for access to the network,' explained the city's chief information officer, Ms.Dianah Neff.
However, the project has stirred up a 'bees' nest' -- and has implications for the whole of America. Hot zones Currently there are just 'hot zones' around Philadelphia offering free 'wi-fi' service, acting as test areas. The bulk of the actual hardware needed to cover the 135-square-mile metro area is yet to be installed. The 'routers', usually mounted on street lighting fixtures, can be placed anywhere high up where there is a power supply. Some 3_000 of the devices will eventually make up a mesh network.
'What is very different about a mesh, versus a cellular network, is that we get the radios very close to where the customer is,' said Mr.Chris Rittler of 'Tropos Networks'. 'What this does is actually pretty amazing; it enables 'off-the-shelf' devices such as laptops, PDAs and wi-fi phones to connect easily. 'It also really reduces the requirements on those devices.'
Big ideas Philadelphia is by no means the first place in the USA to do this, but with 1.5 million people it is the biggest. Other locations include Alexandria in Virginia, Jamestown in New York, and Rio Rancho in New Mexico. Philadelphia differs from the usual model of municipal 'wi-fi' because it has entered into a profit-sharing, private-public sector partnership. It chose the ISP 'EarthLink' to provide the set-up and maintenance costs, as well as the billing services. The initial outlay is estimated at 15 million_USD. When Ms.Dianah Neff announced the project she faced an immediate legal and lobbying onslaught from the giant telecommunications companies, led by 'Verizon'. It was alarmed that the government of America's fifth largest city was getting involved in 'wi-fi' at all, and that the fees would be a fraction of the cost of a private fast internet connection, typically around 45/60_USD/month when bundled with a mandatory landline telephone service.
'There is a question here about whether the competition is fair when the government has advantages of borrowing money, owning and perhaps giving away real estate access, regulating and taxing us,' said Mr.Eric Rabe of 'Verizon'. 'If you are in a position where you can regulate and tax your competitor, it certainly gives you an advantage. 'That is a whole fairness question that I think ought to be worked through and thought about.'
Digital divide 'Verizon' lost its fight in Philadelphia but has succeeded in getting the law changed in the rest of the state. Essentially it has become almost impossible for any other community to set up its own 'wi-fi' system. Several other states have also enacted similar bans, often supported by local politicians who have connections to telecommunications corporations. However Philadelphia says that too many low income families cannot afford high broadband prices and the service is needed to shrink the digital divide between rich and poor. The city now sees Internet access as an essential service just like street lighting and sanitation. But governments are not the only ones that have seen the huge opportunities ahead. There are also non-telecommunications companies willing to set up entire networks. Profit 'Google' is planning to provide free 'wi-fi' access to Mountain View in California. The reason is simple -- any company that owns the login page of a local 'wi-fi' network can cover it with profit-generating links and advertisements. In Philadelphia the login page belongs to 'Philadelphia Cloud'.
'They get to see everything around them, so they get presented with information from hotels nearby, from the museums, coffee shops and restaurants,' said Bailey White of 'Philadelphia Cloud'. 'We are actually finding that several people are saying "you know what, this is great. I didn't know about those things and I'm really happy to be here and take advantage of those activities".'
More and more people are hearing about citywide wi-fi and the newer more powerful technology called 'Wimax', if only because of the political and corporate battles going on across the country. But as they do, the reaction amongst residents is, perhaps surprisingly, not clear cut. What is certain is that everybody will be watching the Philadelphia experiment to see if it becomes a big success or mess. 'Wi-fi venture tests Philadelphia', Ian hardy, BBC News, 2005/12/04 08:37:09 GMT


Blogger Dave said...

This is an interesting idea, especially as there have been all sorts of rumours flying around for ages about how governments HATE wifi... it goes like this:

If you use a dial up ISP connection, you are difficult to trace as the IP address changes eachtime you dial up.

If you use an Internet Cafe's broadband, then you could be caught on CCTV once anything dodgy was traced to the Cafe's fixed IP address...

But if you can access the Internet using WiFi hotspots -- other people's broadband -- then you can spam, download music or distribute porn etc with little chance of getting traced.

Apparently the anti-terrorist government organisations want everyone on ADSL with fixed IP addresses so their activities can be monitored and tracked.

12/11/2005 11:59:00 pm  

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