HP, EarthLink Seeking Philadelphia WiFi Project

Consortia led by Hewlett-Packard and Earthlink are the finalists for a proposed city-wide WiFi network in Philadelphia that government officials hope to have online within two months. While San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is making headlines in the west, back east, the city WiFi network is close to a reality.

According to Varinia C. Robinson, program manager for the Wireless Philadelphia project, who briefed reporters last Friday, “We’re in discussions with them [HP and Earthlink] and hope to move into the final stage for the contract within 30 days. We hope to see deployment start in October.”

Battle with RBOCs

Philadelphia’s proposed network has been at the center of an ongoing battle by regional Bell operating companies (RBOCs), which claim that these subsidized, city networks are an unfair form of competition.

On the other side of the country, San Francisco just last week issued a request for proposals to start the process to build a WiFi network for the city by the bay. “We will not stop until every San Franciscan has access to free wireless Internet service,” said Mayor Gavin Newsom.

The city calls the plan to provide wireless access to 49 square miles south of the Golden Gate bridge “TechConnect.” Experts tell TechNewsWorld that the project will be spearheaded by the city’s department of telecommunications and information services, the public utilities commission and the mayor’s office.

Like Philadelphia, the minimum requirements of the network will include: Use of 802.11b/g with 1Mbps of throughput for every user; as well as percent coverage for indoor use; and a total of 95 percent coverage for outdoor use. The politicians don’t want end users to be required to buy additional equipment beyond their WiFi laptop, PDA or phone to get a signal whilst outdoors.

Affordable Networks?

Newsom’s statement on the TechConnect’s online site specifically calls for “affordable, wireless broadband access.” However, the request for information and comment does say that the city should be allowed to “designate certain parks, common areas and other residential and business zones within the City to allow any user with a WiFi device to gain free and open access to the network.”

The cost to install the networks will likely be between US$10 and $18 million, the city said.

Wireless Philadelphia is running its 135-square-mile network as a non-profit, and is planning to make money by licensing access to carriers and providers. The city considered use of WiFi mesh equipment from either Tropos Networks (Earthlink and HP) or BelAir Networks (AT&T, which was dropped from contention earlier this month). These self-configuring mesh networks have become a preferred way of handling municipality-wide wireless networks.

Overseas, the city of Taipei, Taiwan, said wireless technology has helped the local government’s 400 agencies communicate, and is furnishing real-time information traffic information. Back in the U.S., in Corpus Christi, Texas, wireless Internet devices are being used by building inspectors.

Last week, Intel disclosed that it is helping 13 cities around the world develop community WiFi projects. Company officials said municipal WiFi projects will benefit Intel, which supplies processors for 80 percent of the world’s computers.

Said Paul Butcher, Intel’s marketing manager for state and local government, during a conference call with reporters: “We look at the paradigm shifts that are happening. Municipal wireless and the business models are evolving quickly on this front.”

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