Google Inc. has offered to wire up San Francisco for wireless broadband access, for free. Philadelphia is embarking on a citywide Wi-Fi plan, to be built by EarthLink Inc., which would charge users about $20 per month. And the City of Long Beach opened up bidding for a Wi-Fi project.

The idea of having citywide access to the Internet has pitted telecom and cable companies against Internet companies, and is energizing lobbyists and community groups all over the nation. In weighing the pros and cons of launching municipal Wi-Fi (short for Wireless Fidelity), a central question has emerged: Has broadband access achieved public utility status like water, electricity or gas that a city should be obligated to provide?

A blanket of wireless access would take the current hotspots an Internet caf & #233;, for example and extend them throughout a city. Parks, street corners, buses, restaurants, libraries and office buildings would all be covered within the scope of a wireless signal.

Hotspots exist within the radius of a Wi-Fi antenna, often called a hub. To cover an entire city, thousands of antennas must be placed on rooftops and light poles. The antennae need electricity, and eventually the signals connect to a fiber line that offers broadband access.

Reacting to complaints that telecom and cable companies are not adequately providing affordable broadband access, officials in some cities are in a rush to get wired. Philadelphia's mayor announced his "Wireless Philadelphia" initiative last year, aimed at improving opportunities in the cities' urban areas and offering access to low-income residents. EarthLink is paying for Philadelphia's Wi-Fi deployment, estimated at between $10 million and $16 million.

Wireless efforts in L.A. got a jumpstart under former Mayor James Hahn, with a panel to study the feasibility of "unwiring" the city. So far, Pershing Square has free wireless access, but the rest of the city is a patchwork of hundreds of access points; some are free, some require an account with a network.

Local companies involved in the Wi-Fi explosion include Santa Monica-based Boingo Wireless Inc., a leading Wi-Fi "hotspot" network with more than 20,000 Internet cafes and airports in its network. Though headquartered in Atlanta, EarthLink's municipal broadband team works out of its Pasadena office, and Marina del Rey-based 5G Wireless Inc. deploys Wi-Fi networks at college campuses and small municipalities nationwide.

Pros Attracts Businesses, Residents
Average broadband prices are running more than $30 a month and the U.S. ranks behind the United Kingdom and South Korea in Internet penetration, according to a recent survey two good reasons, proponents argue, for providing a new way to deliver broadband.

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