Wi-Fi fight in Chicago air
EarthLink, AT&T want to provide wireless Internet
By Jon Van
Tribune staff reporter
Published April 20, 2007
A digital wireless future is shaping up for Chicago, with two major
Internet service providers -- AT&T and EarthLink -- vying to build a
municipal broadband network that would operate alongside a higher-end
service planned by Sprint Nextel.
Both the service proposed by AT&T and EarthLink and the one planned by
Sprint Nextel would give computer users in the city wireless Internet
access, whether at home, in the office or on the street, but the
technology and purpose of the two systems are somewhat different.
The Tribune has learned that AT&T Inc. and EarthLink Inc. are in a
competition to build a wireless network using Wi-Fi technology, and both
have made written and oral proposals to the city and Hardik Bhatt, the
city's chief information officer. A spokeswoman said the city is making
progress in reviewing the proposals, but Bhatt declined to estimate when
a decision might be made.
Separately, Sprint Nextel Corp. has selected Chicago as the location for
one of its first WiMax wireless broadband networks, which should be in
place by the end of the year.
WiMax would use powerful technology to envelop the city in a wireless
signal capable of giving users Internet access in buildings, on the
street or in traveling vehicles. The signal travels for miles.
By contrast, a Wi-Fi signal travels for blocks and wouldn't work, for
example, in a moving car. But even so, executives at AT&T and EarthLink
said their firms' enthusiasm for building a municipal broadband network
in the city is undiminished.
"There may be some overlap, but we see the two networks as more
complementary than competitive," said Tom Hulsebosch, EarthLink's
Chicago-based vice president of municipal sales. At $22 a month, he
said, EarthLink's proposal will likely cost customers about half of what
Sprint will likely charge.
AT&T views Sprint's new network as more of a competitor to the
high-speed wireless service it offers through AT&T Mobile, formerly
called Cingular, said Susan Johnson, senior vice president for AT&T
She said her firm views municipal wireless as filling a gap between
wired DSL service consumers have in their homes and the mobile
phone-based data service.
"Broadband comes in a variety of flavors," she said, "and AT&T wants to
offer them all."
The proposed Wi-Fi network would have access to some 90,000 streetlight
poles in Chicago to which it could attach radio antennas and
transmission equipment. Sprint's WiMax network will use existing towers
that are part of Sprint Nextel's wireless phone networks.
EarthLink, based in Atlanta, has been among the nation's most active
promoters of municipal Wi-Fi, having this week landed a contract to
install a network in the county surrounding Arlington, Va. It also is
building a system in Philadelphia and is in negotiations with San
AT&T, which earlier had opposed municipal Wi-Fi systems, is now
selectively seeking to operate a few of them. It is building one in
Riverside, Calif., and has sought to build others in St. Louis and Napa,
A third company, NextWLAN Corp. of Los Gatos, Calif., has also made
written and oral proposals to Chicago. NextWLAN's bid is described by
Carlos Rios, the firm's chief, as "admittedly unconventional."
It would be free to Chicagoans with the lowest 20 percent of income and
cost $10 a month for everyone else. Rios said that his firm's proposal
is to supplement the outdoor Wi-Fi systems proposed by EarthLink and
AT&T by providing an indoor wireless system.
AT&T plans to offer a free, advertisement-supported service running at
lower speeds, as well as ad-free faster broadband service for those who
pay. In Riverside, rates run at $7 for a day pass and $16 for a week.
For a nominal fee, AT&T would also offer its DSL customers the option of
using Wi-Fi when they leave home.
Municipal Wi-Fi has become quite popular in recent years, said Frank
Hanzlik, managing director of the Austin-based Wi-Fi Alliance trade
group. He estimates as many as 1,000 cities and towns across America are
in some stage of using or studying the technology.
Such systems work best when a user is outside, and there will be spots
where they cannot get a signal at all, Hanzlik said.
"In general, it is better to view this as a supplement that addresses
some core municipal needs," he said.
AT&T and EarthLink both propose services separate from the one used by
consumers that would serve city workers and do things like read parking
Whether the city would use and pay for such services is still a matter
for negotiation. Craig Settles, author of the book "Fighting the Good
Fight for Municipal Wireless," said that city officials should realize
they need to have some financial stake in municipal Wi-Fi systems.
"If the only leverage you have is providing access to light poles,
that's not much," Settles said. "If the vendor doesn't want to do
something, you can threaten him with loss of pole access. He might just
abandon the project."
Cities should view municipal Wi-Fi as a way of improving city
communications and service, as well as providing Internet access to
poorer citizens, Settles said.
Both AT&T and EarthLink propose offering wholesale service over their
Wi-Fi systems so that other vendors could use the network to market
service to Chicagoans. Wholesale is a requirement of the city's request
for proposals, and just what price would constitute wholesale has yet to
be negotiated, said AT&T's Johnson.
If EarthLink wins the city's nod, Hulsebosch said his firm would
approach adjacent suburbs to gauge their interest in getting a similar
service to spread out from Chicago's borders.
Johnson said that AT&T has no plans to move beyond Chicago's city
limits, should it win the bid.
"We're anxious to do Chicago's 160 square miles," she said, "but we've
no plans to move beyond that."
- - -
Wi-Fi: a well-established wireless technology to supply high-speed
Internet connections to computers located as far as a few hundred feet
away from the Wi-Fi transmitter.
WiMax: a new technology, also wireless, intended to supply high-speed
connections to computers that are miles away, even when they are moving
in a train or car.