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Chicago to Hop on Wi-Fi Bandwagon

The nationwide rush to go wireless appears poised to extend to its biggest city yet.

Chicago is launching an effort to offer wireless broadband, city officials said Friday, jumping on the Wi-Fi bandwagon as similar initiatives proceed in Philadelphia, San Francisco and smaller cities.

Chicago has hundreds of Wi-Fi hotspots in places like coffee shops, bookstores and libraries, where anyone can walk in, sit down and connect to the Web. Hoping to extend that wireless blanket to all 228 square miles, the city plans to ask technology companies this spring to submit proposals for the project.

While it's too soon to say how the system would operate, the goal is to make Internet access "broad and affordable" for residents and heighten Chicago's appeal for businesses and tourists alike, according to Chris O'Brien, the city's chief information officer.

The city did not specify goals for how much the system would charge for access. In Philadelphia, EarthLink Inc. is building a citywide network that will charge a wholesale rate of $9 a month to Internet service providers that would then resell access to the public at an undetermined price.

"We think it's important for residents of the city and tourists and businesses to have lots of different ways to connect," O'Brien said. "For a city as big as Chicago, with the vibrant business community and diverse citizen base that we have, you want to make sure all kinds of technology are available to them as they work and enjoy entertainment options."

If all goes smoothly, the system could be running as soon as 2007, O'Brien said. That would all but certainly leave the city behind Philadelphia, which hopes to have its entire system in place late this year or early next year. But the size of a Chicago network would dwarf Philadelphia's planned 135-square-mile network or anything now in place.

Currently, the biggest municipal Wi-Fi network is the all-free MetroFi in the south San Francisco Bay area at 35 square miles, according to Wi-Fi expert Glenn Fleishman. By spring, that title will be passed to one covering nearly 110 square miles in the neighboring Phoenix suburbs of Tempe and Chandler, Ariz., he said.

Cities' race to get into municipal broadband is being increasingly embraced by Internet service providers, since most cities are enlisting private companies to help build the wireless systems rather than doing it on their own. EarthLink created a division last year to solicit deals similar to Philadelphia's with the 50 largest cities.

Cities besides Philadelphia that have put Wi-Fi projects out for proposals in the last four months alone, according to EarthLink, include Portland, Ore.; San Francisco, Anaheim, Pasadena and Long Beach, Calif.; Denver and Aurora, Colo.; Minneapolis; Milwaukee; Grand Rapids, Mich.; Pittsburgh; Arlington, Va.; and Brookline, Mass.

Rather than viewing the cities' efforts as competition, said Don Berryman, president of Earthling's municipal networks division: "This allows us to build our own network and provide broadband service anywhere we want and not have to work through the Bell company or the cable company, so it gives us a lot of freedom."

Chicago's main phone company, AT&T, says it similarly would not be opposed to a city-initiated effort.

"AT&T always has believed that the best approach is to stimulate investment in broadband," spokesman Rick Fox said. "As long as you're working with the private sector, that's a good thing."

The idea of a citywide Wi-Fi network got a big thumbs-up from several Chicagoans who were sitting in cafes with their laptops Friday.

"I'm always searching for Internet hotspots," said Beibei Que, a law student getting in some work at a coffee shop. "I like to have the Net at my fingertips wherever I go."

Katy Harper, who works mostly out of her home, said she would welcome the chance to get online elsewhere. "It's nice to be able to go out and sit somewhere and get connected," she said.