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L.A. mayor wants citywide wireless access

Antonio Villaraigosa proposes a Wi-Fi plan that would provide free or low-cost Internet services over 498 square miles in 2009.

February 14, 2007|James S. Granelli and Tony Barboza | Times Staff Writers

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa outlined plans Tuesday to blanket Los Angeles with wireless Internet access in 2009, in what would be one of the nation's largest urban Wi-Fi networks.

The L.A. Wi-Fi initiative would give Los Angeles residents, schools, businesses and visitors uninterrupted high-speed Internet connections -- for work, research, Web browsing or even phone calls.

More than 300 municipalities nationwide already have launched plans for similar networks based on the Wi-Fi technology that has become popular at coffee shops, bookstores, public parks and countless other so-called hot spots.

Such networks are operating in parts of such cities as Anaheim, San Jose, Philadelphia and Portland, Ore.

"With L.A. Wi-Fi, we are dedicating ourselves to the idea that universal access to technology makes our entire economy stronger," Villaraigosa said.

Municipal Wi-Fi networks cost on average $125,000 per square mile to set up and maintain, depending on building heights and the city's terrain, according to city officials. At that cost, the price tag for covering Los Angeles' 498 square miles could reach more than $62 million.

Internet providers and equipment makers have estimated such costs at about $40 for every home covered by the network. That would work out to almost $54 million in Los Angeles.

Villaraigosa said he expected to create a public-private sector partnership and would seek bids as early as this fall. He is forming a working group and plans to hire an expert to iron out details of the ambitious project.

The winning bidder would probably pay for the installation, while the city would donate space for antennas on city buildings, light poles and other structures.

Wi-Fi network operators could try to make their money back in several ways, including showing ads on the free or low-cost service and promoting their higher-speed offers at market prices.

Some cities also pay to put municipal workers who are in the field, such as police and firefighters, on the system.

"This is pretty amazing," said Esme Vos, who founded MuniWireless.com, an authority on municipal projects nationwide. "It's a large area, yet an urban project. That's kind of new."

Councilman Tony Cardenas, who heads the city's information technology committee, said the council has supported past efforts that included Wi-Fi hot spots at Pershing Square downtown and the Marvin Braude Center in Van Nuys.

Cardenas expects the council to support the citywide plan, which has been discussed for several years.

"We need it," he said. "I would like to see all L.A. kids grow up advantaged, not disadvantaged."

The city's existing commercial broadband providers -- AT&T Inc., Time Warner Cable and Verizon Communications Inc. -- aren't planning to oppose the city's efforts.

Verizon, which once joined cable giant Comcast Corp. to try to curtail Philadelphia's wireless project, no longer stands in the way of municipalities.

"We urge cities to be cautious investing taxpayer money in such a venture where technology is changing rapidly," said Verizon spokesman Jonathan Davies.

AT&T spokesman H. Gordon Diamond said the company is committed to making broadband affordable and has bid on municipal wireless projects "where it makes business sense to do so."

Time Warner, which has worked on city broadband task forces, doesn't see the Wi-Fi network as competition but rather an extension of its own services, said spokeswoman Patricia Rockenwagner.

The lack of competition among broadband providers has kept prices high and helped create a digital divide, separating those who can afford computers and Internet access from those who can't, Vos said.

That concern, along with help for small businesses and city services, has been driving the municipal wireless efforts nationwide.

But problems crop up. In San Francisco, a proposal by Google Inc. and EarthLink Inc. to set up and run a wireless system has raised a ruckus over whether such a network ought to be built, owned and run by the city.

Google is offering to operate a free, lower-speed broadband service supported by advertising that pops up on users' screens, while partner EarthLink proposes to operate the higher-speed services for which customers pay fees.

On Tuesday, San Francisco's board of supervisors started to look into creating the network as a public utility, potentially stalling approval of Mayor Gavin Newsom's contract with the two companies.

Also, as many cities around L.A. have learned, street light and power poles are essential locations for Wi-Fi antennas. And Southern California Edison isn't letting any city use their poles.

Los Angeles, however, owns the poles and the electric utility that serve the city.

Villaraigosa acknowledged skepticism surrounding a citywide system but said the L.A. Wi-Fi initiative was "not going to be a study to put on the shelf."

james.granelli@latimes.com

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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