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Pittsburgh City-wide Wi-Fi

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Very interesting article on wether a city-wide Wi-Fi network is the future standard or a passing and expensive fad. Up until reading this I was gung ho on the city-wide standard but this made me think.

Citywide wireless Internet connection a long way off

Some in city don't see a need

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

By Corilyn Shropshire, PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE

Members of a public-private committee charged with recommending how Pittsburgh can keep up with rapid changes in communication technologies say a citywide wireless fidelity or "Wi-Fi" Internet connection is still a long way off.

The Information Communications Technologies Working Group -- a 25-member committee composed of public officials, local telecommunications providers and non-profit advocates -- say the question is not when but if the city should jump on the bandwagon with other U.S. municipalities that are starting to provide the public with inexpensive wireless Internet access, reducing the need for high-speed cable or telephone connections.

"There are different schools of thought," said William Peduto, the District 8 city councilman who convened the working group's first meetings this summer.

"We're still debating whether or not it's a good idea," said group chairman Alex Thomson, an attorney at Downtown-based law firm Houston & Harbaugh PC. "Certain constituencies think it's a great idea and others think that it's stupid."

Peduto and other committee members say they have not even begun to discuss what it would cost to bring Wi-Fi into every Pittsburgh home.

Meanwhile, the city of Philadelphia already is offering free Wi-Fi "hot spots" in certain locations around the city and is planning to expand access to the entire city at an initial estimated cost of $10 million and an annual price tag of $1.5 million to maintain.

Philadelphia's plan appeared to hit a snag when the state legislature recently passed a measure, backed by Verizon Communications Inc., that would prevent Pennsylvania cities and towns from bringing wireless Internet to their residents unless local telephone companies declined to provide the service. Gov. Ed Rendell has until midnight tonight to veto or sign the bill, which sets rules for telephone competition in the state.

Verizon and Comcast Corp., which both have seats on the Pittsburgh committee, have lobbied vociferously against local wireless initiatives. They fear that municipalities that build and operate wireless Web connections at cheaper rates could ultimately steal their high-speed Internet customers.

"It's clear that based on their lobbying efforts, Comcast and Verizon are against municipals getting into the business," said committee member Timothy Pisula, CEO of YYireless1.net, in Carnegie, a wireless and broadband Internet provider.

A Verizon spokesman said yesterday the company will not stand in the way of Philadelphia or Pittsburgh to provide wireless Internet access citywide.

"The entry of municipalities into the broadband business is not something we would prefer to happen," said Verizon spokesman Lee Gierczynski. "It raises some legitimate questions and concerns."

Cities that have jumped into the Internet service provider business often offer Wi-Fi service free or at a lower cost than telephone and cable providers.

That creates unfair competition, according to Gierczynski. "We're not against competition, but [cities]have those inherent advantages that don't provide for a level playing field," he said. "It's more effective for municipal governments to work with private sector companies, rather than deploying these networks on their own."

The debate inside the Pittsburgh working group, Pisula said, is if the city should develop hot zones in public areas such as PNC Park, Market Square and Heinz Field or spread it throughout every corner of the city.

Cost, Pisula added, is not yet an issue. "The last meeting was a somewhat passionate debate about whether or not the city should be in the business" of providing Internet access, Pisula said.

Working group members said they were not sure how much it would cost to install and maintain the small antennas that allow users to connect to the Web via radio waves instead of cables. The committee is expected to deliver its recommendations to the Mayor and City Council sometime in March.

With Pittsburgh's budget crisis, creating universal Internet access seems a petty problem and a lofty desire. But proponents maintain that staying ahead of the technological curve helps lure and keep businesses and jobs in the city. And without it, residents in poorer neighborhoods may have a long wait for telecommunications companies to offer them high-speed Internet access.

"I'm a capitalist, but if the city believes this is important to attract business and upscale residents, then they would have to subsidize it." Pisula said. "That would bring it to bear a lot quicker."

Without "socialized telecommunication," Pisula said, it could take years for companies to decide if it's worth the investment.

Wi-Fi is widely regarded as the cheapest way to provide areas with Internet access because it costs less than planting cable lines underground.

Some cities, such as Hermosa Beach, Calif., are providing residents Wi-Fi service for free and paying for it with advertising revenue. Other cities are undercutting the price of commercial high-speed Internet providers, who can charge as much as $60 a month.

"Making money is not the city's goal," said Esme Vos, who runs the Web site www.muniwireless.com, which tracks cities' efforts to offer Wi-Fi. "Cities want everyone, including poor people, to have broadband, and Verizon wants to deliver it to people who can pay."

"I think the city isn't interested because they can't generate income from it," said Carl Redwood, a community activist in East Liberty. "The case for how it will help the city is not clear enough." Redwood added that the city could generate income from deploying a Wi-Fi network as well as boost its image as a forward-thinking, high-tech hub.

Still, Thomson acknowledged that before the city can begin planning to pepper neighborhoods with wireless Internet, it has to solve its fiscal issues.

"The city's got other fish to fry," Thomson said.

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