Philly: Let Free WiFi Ring

Joe Nicolosi, left, accesses the internet via a free wireless connection in LOVE park, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2004, in Philadelphia.
For about $10 million, city officials believe they can turn all 135 square miles of Philadelphia into the world's largest wireless Internet hot spot.

The ambitious plan, now in the works, would involve placing hundreds, or maybe thousands of small transmitters around the city — probably atop lampposts. Each would be capable of communicating with the wireless networking cards that now come standard with many computers.

Once complete, the network would deliver broadband Internet almost anywhere radio waves can travel — including poor neighborhoods where high-speed Internet access is now rare.

And the city would likely offer the service either for free, or at costs far lower than the $35 to $60 a month charged by commercial providers, said the city's chief information officer, Dianah Neff.

"If you're out on your front porch with a laptop, you could dial in, register at no charge, and be able to access a high speed connection," Neff said. "It's a technology whose time is here."

If the plan becomes a reality, Philadelphia could leap to the forefront of a growing number of cities that have contemplated offering wireless Internet service to residents, workers and guests.

Chaska, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis, began offering citywide wireless Internet access this year for $16 a month. The signal covers about 13 square miles.

Corpus Christi, Texas, has been experimenting with a system covering 20 square miles that would initially be used only by government employees.

Over the past year, Cleveland has added some 4,000 wireless transmitters in its University Circle, Midtown and Lakefront districts. The service is free, and available to anyone who passes through the areas.

"We like to say it should be like the air you breathe — free and available everywhere," said Lev Gonick, chief information officer at Case Western Reserve University, which is spearheading the project and paying for a chunk of it. "We look at this like PBS or NPR. It should be a public resource."

In New York, city officials are negotiating to sell wireless carriers space on 18,000 lampposts for as much as $21.6 million annually. T-Mobile USA Inc., Nextel Partners Inc., IDT Corp. and three other wireless carriers want the equipment to increase their networks' capacity.

Wireless technology has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years and become drastically less expensive.

The new "wireless mesh" technology under consideration in Philadelphia has made it possible to expand those similar networks over entire neighborhoods, with the help of relatively cheap antennas.

Neff estimated it would cost about $10 million to pay for the initial infrastructure for the system, plus $1.5 million a year to maintain.

Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street, a technology buff who carries a wireless handheld computer everywhere he goes, appointed a 14-member committee last week to work out the specifics of his city's plan, including any fees, or restrictions on its use.