Philadelphia to Get First Citywide Wi-Fi Network

The city of Philadelphia will become the largest U.S. Internet "hot spot" next year under a plan to offer wireless access at about half the cost charged by commercial operators, city officials said Thursday.

Last year, officials unveiled a pilot scheme offering users of Wi-Fi (search)-enabled computers access to the Internet within a radius of about a mile of downtown's Love Park. Thursday's announcement expands the network to the city's entire 135-square-mile area, marking a U.S. first.

The "Wireless Philadelphia (search)" network is expected to be up by late summer 2006 and available to computer users paying up to $20 a month. Commercial Wi-Fi services run about $40 monthly.

"People are watching all over the world to determine whether a city of 135 square miles can become one big hot spot," Philadelphia Mayor John Street (search) told reporters.

"People want to be connected and we think it is our obligation to provide that kind of access," Street said.

The network, based on devices attached to city streetlight poles, is expected to cost the city $15 million to set up.

The service will cost subscribers from $16 to $20 a month and will be available through a device costing about $80, city chief information officer Dianah Neff said.

The city hopes the plan will get 80 percent of Philadelphia households connected to the Internet within five years, up from the current level of 58 percent.

City officials estimate it will create 3,000 jobs, mostly by creating the type of city attractive to tech-savvy people who want to be connected to the Internet at all times.

The plan is opposed by some city lawmakers who say the network will cost more to build than estimated and that the work should be given to telecom companies such as Verizon Communications (VZ) or Comcast Corp (CMCSA).

City councilman Frank Rizzo said the city government does not have the expertise or the money to embark on the project when it is cutting jobs and services to balance its budget.

"I would love to see Philadelphia wireless, but it's not the government's job to do it," Rizzo told Reuters.

But Gene Kimmelman, senior director for public policy at Consumers Union (search), a consumer watchdog group, said the plan will provide Internet access to low- and moderate-income communities for about half the rate charged by phone and cable companies, and will break what he called their monopolistic practices.

"The government has every business assuring the provision of essential services to all its citizens, and in today's world having access to the Internet is as important as keeping your house or feeding your family," Kimmelman said.

He said Philadelphia's costing is realistic and predicted that the program will be copied throughout the United States once it has proven workable.

"It is an extremely important program, and we have every reason to believe it will go ahead," he said.