Chicago Sun-Times ( )

City-wide Wi-Fi closer than you think

Imagine yourself sitting with your laptop computer fully hooked up to the Web through high-speed broadband on the lawn in Grant Park or in the stands at Soldier Field or in your backyard in Rogers Park or in the back of an RV or riding a CTA bus to work.

Better yet, imagine your own small business office PC similarly connected without wires that must be linked to an expensive cable service land line, and find it usable in any room, any time.

That fantasy might become a reality this year, thanks to the energies of Chicago's Mister Connectivity, Chris O'Brien, and his high powered team. He's presenting his final recommendations to the City Council a week from today. On Monday, EarthLink Inc. finalized a 10-year contract to provide wireless Internet service across Philadelphia, making it the largest U.S. city to date to ink plans to build a wireless Internet network.

Wi-Fi essentially permits any computer user, with a special chip or card inserted into his machine, to log onto the Internet on a wireless basis. The connection is via a transmission box/antenna that sends and receives signals and serves any enabled computer within a 200-foot radius.

Beyond the arcane

Up to now, this service has been limited to local Starbucks, McDonald's and other fast-food emporiums (mainly arcane venues such as Chicago's Bean Addiction Cafe, the Bourgeois Pig and Rain Dog Books & Cafe) plus 79 public library branches here. All these are called "hot spots" -- places where proprietors and municipalities have already provided free or low-cost wireless access to the Web.

No major city in the world has citywide coverage. Taipei (population 2.6 million), capital of Taiwan, probably will be the first. It has 3,300 wireless "access points" (transmitter/antenna units) that cover half the city's 276 square kilometers, and Taiwan consulate official Lishan Chang in Chicago states that 100 percent coverage will be completed by June. It's being installed at a cost of $93 million by Q-Ware Systems, Inc., which will recoup the cost by a usage fee of $12.50 per month per subscriber.

The final plan O'Brien will present next Tuesday calls for an RFP (request for proposals) to be issued in coming weeks to dozens of equipment suppliers (e.g., Motorola, Tropos and similar companies) and service providers (e.g., T-Mobile) that can handle installation and network maintenance.

While the project is daunting in scope, it's extremely familiar ground to this 37-year-old techie. He has been serving as Chicago's chief information officer for the past six years, responsible for just about everything that clicks or blinks, including all 15,000 PC's at City Hall and 200 remote locations, the city Web site, its e-commerce system and even its emergency management system.

He estimates it will take three months to have the RFP's circulated and returned, and another three months for review before contract award -- which probably will go to a consortium of equipment makers and service providers.

Installation, in which the access unit, about the size of a hard-cover book, will be mounted on city-owned locations like lamp posts, could then take place fairly rapidly, probably before year-end.

He sees the move as a win/win for everyone. "The user will be free to access broadband service anywhere within city limits, indoors and out, at very low cost," he says. "The city will provide an important convenience at no cost to the taxpayer. And the project will mean good business for the suppliers."

Technology makes it possible

If the upside is so obvious, why didn't all this happen earlier? "Simply because," O'Brien tells me, "the technology hadn't matured to the point where we had confidence it could serve an entire city this large. Now we know it has."

The project culminates several months of effort by the two City Council members who spearheaded the idea, Finance Committee Chairman Ed Burke and Ald. Marge Laurino, chairwoman of the Economic, Capital and Technology Development Committee.

Helping mightily, she says, to make it all happen has been a special task force including six other aldermen, four O'Brien staffers and pro bono volunteers Nicole Friedman, Scott Goldstein, David Weinstein, Brian Imus, Lynn Daniel, James Yu and Turner Lee Nicol. You can thank them when you finally can get on-line without wires, anywhere, any time.

Ted Pincus is a finance professor at DePaul and an independent communications consultant and journalist.