By Gary Washburn
Tribune staff reporter
Published May 31, 2006
City Hall will seek proposals from private companies to extend
high-speed wireless Internet service to all Chicago neighborhoods at
little or no cost to consumers, Mayor Richard Daley announced Tuesday.
Exactly how the Wi-Fi system would be installed, how its benefits
would be extended even to the city's poorest areas and how the system
would provide profits for the company that operates it will be up to
the firms that respond, officials said.
"We're fortunate that the United States has some of the most
advanced computer technology in the world," Daley said. "The problem
is, not everyone has access to it. ... There's a wide gap between the
haves and have-nots."
The City Council has been studying the possibility of Wi-Fi installation for more than a year.
"From the beginning, there was a concern that Wi-Fi technology
should be shared with the most underserved of our city's population,"
said Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th), chairman of the council's Economic,
Capital and Technology Development Committee.
"Our goal was to get this into neighborhoods from Albany Park to
Hegewisch, to Garfield Park and Austin," said Laurino, who appeared
with Daley at a West Side news conference. "We didn't need to worry
about Michigan Avenue and Lincoln Park."
Besides being required to provide a system that reaches every
neighborhood and all public schools, bidders also must make a financial
commitment to providing access to such things as affordable computers
and computer-training programs, officials said.
Most computer users connect to the Internet by wires--telephone,
cable or to satellite dishes--in their homes and offices, and they pay
a fee for the service.
Wi-Fi, or Wireless Fidelity, permits computers to connect by way of radio signals.
The city would offer public infrastructure, most commonly light
poles, to a winning bidder that would install hundreds of antennas
throughout Chicago. The company could make money by selling its service
to users above a specified income level and to City Hall for a variety
of governmental uses. It could also sell advertising that would appear
on users' computer screens.
"I think Chicago can expect a decent response, probably a
combination of national and local" vendors, said Steven Titch, telecom
analyst for the Heartland Institute.
Though no big city has launched Wi-Fi yet, Titch said that
Philadelphia is close to going forward after approving a contract with
EarthLink. Service is scheduled to begin next year.
Other deals are in the works in San Francisco, Anaheim and Portland, Ore., Titch said.
The cost of installation and the number of antennas required would
depend on the type of system and equipment selected by the bidder, said
Hardik Bhatt, the city's chief information officer.
Officials in the past have estimated that citywide installation would require about 7,500 antennas and cost $18.5 million.
The quality of responses from companies, expected in about four months, will determine whether the city awards a contract.
Chicago already has free wireless Internet access at 79 Chicago
Public Library locations. Other public "hot spots" include Daley Plaza,
the Chicago Cultural Center and Millennium Park.