Milwaukee to create citywide Wi-Fi net

City of Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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Milwaukee is the latest city to announce plans to develop a citywide wireless network for residents and businesses.

The initiative, based on a multimillion dollar private investment, “will create tremendous growth for a locally owned company and will open the door to new jobs, job training and other social and educational opportunities,” said Mayor Tom Barrett in an Oct. 12 prepared statement.

He also said it will help bridge the Digital Divide by bringing low-cost wireless access to low-income citizens and neighborhoods.

Nik Ivancevic, partner at Midwest Fiber Networks, said the company approached city officials with the idea to develop the network. He said the company, which designs, develops and implements fiber networks and wireless broadband access, has an existing relationship with the city.

"It’s been very well-received," he said.

Although he could not provide many details because the two sides are in negotiations, he estimated the price tag at $20 million to $25 million but said it would not cost taxpayers anything.

The company, which would build and manage the network, has several private-sector partners lined up to provide services to the city. He said city officials would negotiate with those partners to determine which services the city needs. He said he hoped the project would be completed by early 2007.

In the past year, several major municipalities have announced plans to build Wi-Fi networks across their cities whether by themselves or via a public/private partnership.

Supporters have cited several reasons for building municipal Wi-Fi networks, including the potential for spurring economic development, bridging the Digital Divide and providing an alternative to cable or digital subscriber line service. They say Wi-Fi can also improve government productivity by providing employees with remote or mobile wireless access. In some cases, supporters have said the private sector was not serving the market.

However, critics said municipalities should not compete with the private sector by building their own wireless networks and acting as an Internet service provider. They also said it could be financially untenable for municipalities. Several states have introduced or passed legislation banning municipalities from providing their own wireless networks. Federal legislation was also introduced that would also bar states and municipalities from offering their own Internet service.

But some critics said a public/private partnership could work.

Earlier this month, Philadelphia announced EarthLink, an Internet service provider, would finance, build, implement and manage what is estimated to become a $20 million Wi-Fi mesh network across the 135 square-mile city.

The company will provide inexpensive broadband Internet service, which would be free in some parks and public spaces, to residents and businesses and offer discounted rates to certain qualifying residents. The company will share revenues with the nonprofit organization called Wireless Philadelphia, which was established by city officials to oversee the project. The network, which is expected to be the country’s largest municipal Wi-Fi broadband network, could be operational in some capacity by the end of 2006.

Other cities, including San Francisco and Portland, Ore., have also embarked on wireless access initiatives. Among the two dozen or so plans San Francisco has received to build a Wi-Fi network, search engine giant Google has proposed building the network and then provide Internet access for free because the company makes its revenues through advertising sales.


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