AT&T Aims to Build Network for Illinois City

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AT&T Inc. (T) is the lead candidate to build a citywide wireless network for Springfield, Ill., marking the company's first success in the developing market to blanket municipalities with ubiquitous Internet access.

Mayor Timothy Davlin announced Tuesday that the city intends to pursue a proposal submitted by AT&T, pending approval by the Springfield City Council. The state capital is still free to choose a partner other than AT&T.

As with a growing number of municipal wireless projects, the Springfield network's users will be given a choice of free access supported by advertisements or paying a daily or monthly fee for a connection without ads. AT&T also plans to sell the wireless capability as an add-on service for residential and business customers who already pay for DSL online access over the company's local telephone network.

The network is to be built and maintained without taxpayer dollars, Davlin said in a statement.

Hundreds of municipal wireless projects have been proposed around the country the past few years. Many have sparked protest from those who oppose any such expenditure of taxpayer money, as well as from phone and cable TV companies that would be forced to compete with a low-cost or free wireless service.

City officials frequently argue that Internet access is a vital public service akin to water and garbage collection, asserting that broad wireless access is an economic necessity for keeping and luring businesses. They also complain that the local phone and cable providers have been slow to bring affordable broadband access to low-income residents.

But in the face of heavy lobbying, the trend has veered away from the early emphasis on city-owned and city-run networks. Instead, cities have been contracting with companies such as EarthLink Inc. and MetroFi Inc. to build and operate the systems with plans to generate revenue from ads and subscriptions.

One company has rejected the ad-based model: In June, MobilePro Inc. pulled out of a deal to set up a wireless network in Sacramento, Calif., saying the city's request for a network funded entirely through advertising was not financially feasible.

AT&T has partnered with MetroFi on at least one bid for such a project in Riverside, Calif., and has been "actively involved" in seeking deals to provide wireless networks in as many as a dozen cities, said Eric Shepcaro, senior vice president for AT&T Business Services.

The Springfield network would cover between 25 and 30 square miles, delivered with a combination of Wi-Fi and longer-range technologies such as WiMax.