Wi-Fi: Wave of the Future?

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The years of daydreaming about infinite internet access in major cities across the United States might be closer than we think—that is, if you have a wireless-enabled laptop computer or other wireless device, and a Web browser that can access the Internet anywhere. In fact, many major cities across the United States are beginning to realize that “free” Wi-Fi service might actually be a required utility for their residents. Until recently, most Wi-Fi service in major metropolitan areas has been limited to local coffee shops, fast-food restaurants, libraries, college campuses, hotels and other public locations. Thus far, San Francisco and Philadelphia are amongst the two largest cities in the United States close to implementing citywide Wi-Fi networks. Chicago, Minneapolis and New York City are among the many other metropolitan areas that are in the early stages of implementing citywide Wi-Fi initiatives.

The 2005 Most Unwired Cities survey sponsored by Intel Corp. and conducted by Bert Sperling, a researcher who specializes in conducting and analyzing data for nationally known best places, ranks the top 100 U.S. cities and regions for the greatest wireless Internet accessibility. According to the survey, Seattle and the surrounding regions including Bellevue, Everett and Tacoma, Wash., are the best locations for wireless Internet accessibility in the United States. Although Seattle received top wireless-hotspot honors, surprisingly, Seattle does not have a citywide Wi-Fi network in place—that is, as of yet. The city does have approximately 800 hotspots in the Seattle metropolitan area, 200 of which are located in Starbucks coffee shops.

The second best unwired city was San Francisco, which is inching closer to realizing a citywide wireless network. San Francisco first launched its initiative to provide universal, affordable wireless broadband access to all San Franciscans at no cost or minimal cost to the city and residents in August 2005. Recently, Google and EarthLink were selected to create the universal wireless network for San Francisco collaboratively.

Compared to Seattle, San Francisco already has approximately 1,400 wireless access points in the Bay Area. However, Seattle ranked slightly higher because of the number of hotspots per 100,000 people. Austin, Texas was ranked the third-best city for wireless accessibility.

Unpredictably, Philadelphia, the first city in the United States to implement a citywide wireless network initiative, ranked in 50th place. Similarly to San Francisco, Philadelphia selected EarthLink to implement the city’s wireless network. According to the City of Philadelphia’s Web site, once the wireless initiative is fully implemented, Philadelphia will be largest Wi-Fi hotspot in the United States. Philadelphia plans to have its citywide Wi-Fi network up and running by summer 2006.

Nevertheless, many people are skeptical whether citywide Wi-Fi will be successfully implemented in the numerous cities that have Wi-Fi initiatives in the works. Although several smaller cities such as Grand Haven, Mich., the first city in the United States to offer citywide wireless access, and Milpitas, Calif., have successfully deployed citywide Wi-Fi, wireless technologies have not yet been tested in large metropolitan areas in the United States. Metropolitan cities will have to deal with interference from other wireless devices that are trying to transmit signals on the same channels, as well as deal with other operation and business challenges. In addition, implementing a citywide wireless network can be still quite costly despite advances in wireless technology.

On the other hand, Perth, Australia, home of more than one million people, successfully deployed a citywide Wi-Fi network. The network covers the city’s dense urban environment, and allows mobile and fixed broadband Internet access as well as mobile voice and video services to business users, municipal workers, guests and residents of the city. The city has achieved 80 percent coverage with its metromesh network, which is designed to support standard wireless devices at a relatively low cost.

The success realized in Perth suggests that both Philadelphia and San Francisco might find success as they enter the beginning stages of implementation. If such metro-wireless networks are fully realized, cities expect the benefits to be abundant. The benefits include attracting new businesses, attracting tourists, improved education and improved delivery of public services. Also, cities predict that residents’ potential and knowledge will steadily improve with long-term citywide wireless Internet access.

-Cari McLean, carim@certmag.com

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