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Indicator: Cities Go Wireless

This spring, the movement for community wireless networks won a major victory, when Philadelphia Mayor John Street launched a project to create a citywide wireless Internet network. The project aims to break down the “digital divide” that keeps the city's economically and socially disadvantaged citizens from accessing the Web.

In November, Mayor Street's plans were almost blocked when Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell signed a law that banned local governments from delivering broadband services without first getting permission from the local phone company. Wireless Philadelphia was permitted to continue with its project after Governor Rendell amended the bill to go into effect after January 1, 2006.

Thanks to lobbying from telecom giants such as Verizon—which argue that municipalities have an unfair advantage because they can use tax dollars and tax-exempt bonds to fund their networks—more than a dozen states have passed similar bills that restrict local governments from offering wireless services.

Nonprofit Wireless Philadelphia is faced with the task of raising funds for the $10 million project and administering it. Its goal of installing 3,000 wireless nodes across 135 square miles of the city is one of the largest undertakings of its kind within the U.S.
Wireless Philadelphia will offer free Internet access in some public spaces and affordable internet service throughout the city by partnering with a number of Internet service providers. If all goes as planned, the city should have all 3,000 nodes installed by the summer of 2006.

Other cities have already begun to provide wireless access. In Portland, Oregon, self-employed workers, telecommuters, and students can use the Web and send e-mails from local coffee shops, thanks to the Personal Telco Project. This nonprofit organization, with the support of volunteers, grants, and business owners, has set up 100 wireless “hot spots,” or nodes, throughout the city since 2000. The network will soon expand into North Portland, serving an additional 3,000 residents.

Personal Telco is based on a set of guidelines known as the Wireless Commons Manifesto, a national charter created in 2003 by the movement for community wireless, leaders of which include Personal Telco founder, Adam Shand. The guidelines ensure that the network remains an open entity, in which people can anonymously sign on and share information free of charge.

Seattle provides wireless access on a commuter train line between Tacoma and Seattle, on several Washington state ferries, and in open hot spots in several city neighborhoods.
—Becky Brun
To learn more, see www.wirelessphiladelphia.net, www.personaltelco.net, and www.freenetworks.org. Becky Brun is a former YES! intern and free-lance writer living in Portland, Oregon.

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