Milwaukee to create citywide Wi-Fi net

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

'This initiative constitutes a multi-million dollar private investment and I am committed to make the Milwaukee Wireless Initiative a reality,' Mayor Tom Barrett said in an Oct. 12 prepared statement. 'It 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.'

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

Nik Ivancevic, partner with Midwest Fiber Networks, said his 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.

While he could not provide many details because the two sides are in negotiations, he said cost is estimated to be between $20 million to $25 million and would not cost taxpayers anything.

The company, which would build and manage the network, has several private sector partners lined up to provide servcies to the city. He said city officials would negotiate with those partners as to what kinds of services would be needed. He said he hoped the project would be completed by the early part of 2007.

In the last year, several major municipalities have announced or planning 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 economic development, bridging the Digital Divide, providing an alternative to cable or digital subscriber line (DSL) service or improving 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 that build their own wireless networks and act as an Internet service provider shouldn't compete with the private sector. 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 introducted 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 non-profit organization called Wireless Philadelphia, which was established by city officials to oversee the project. The network, which is expected to be the nation'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, 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 since the company makes its revenues through advertising sales.

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