After a false start and a series of long discussions with industry stakeholders, the Los Angeles City Council is trying to get a citywide free Internet program off the ground.

As part of the plan, the council is offering to lease city property to Internet service providers that agree to wire the city with high-speed broadband and a level of free Internet.

“When it comes to broadband, we pay too much for too little, when you compare to nations around the world,” said Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who represents large a swath of the San Fernando Valley. “We also have a problem with the digital divide. The gap between the (Internet) haves and the have-nots is widening.”

The proposal is in its early stages, but the city envisions leasing space on light poles, city buildings and even the Department of Water and Power’s fiber-optic network. In exchange, ISPs would be required to provide a level of free Internet access, including free Wi-Fi, to the city at large. The council report estimates that 30 percent of L.A. families don’t have access to basic broadband Internet, defined as at least 5 megabits per second for downloads.

Under the plan, the cost of the basic free Internet would be borne by those paying higher fees for premium high-speed services.

The council authorized a request for proposals from Internet service providers that would provide broadband speeds of 1 gigabit per second or faster at prices of about $70 per month. That cost is a guideline not a cap.

Second try

This isn’t the first time Los Angeles has tried to launch citywide free Internet. Former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa proposed a similar free Wi-Fi plan in 2007, but it went nowhere after a request for proposal was sent out.

Blumenfield said that proposal, which was limited to free Wi-Fi, lacked the technology and ambition needed to succeed, calling it “the embryo of a puppy dog.”

By contrast, he said, “this is a grizzly bear, full-grown.”

In light of previous difficulties, however, Blumenfield said the City Council took their time requesting feedback from industry stakeholders and it remains flexible and willing to work with ISPs on new ideas.

“We’re willing to go as far out of the box as possible,” he said. “The city will have the option of mixing and matching proposals. … There’s a lot of opportunity for creativity in the way that we’ve written it up.”

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