Chicago Scraps Muni WiFi

Chicago is the latest city to pull the plug on plans to build a citywide municipal wireless system after failing to come to terms with EarthLink, its perspective partner, the Chicago Tribune reports today. Chicago is the largest city so far to scrap its municipal plans in the face of new demands from commercial partners to act as “anchor tenant” and commit to purchase a certain level of wireless data services each year. Earlier this summer, Anchorage, Alaska, and Corona, California, decided to drop their plans for similar reasons. MetroFi was the commercial partner in both cases. In addition to the disagreement over the city’s role as anchor tenant, a number of other factors influenced the decision, including the wider availability of affordable wired and wireless Internet connections, some provided by the city itself through other departments. For example, free wireless Internet is available in all 79 city public libraries as well as in large downtown public spaces such as the city’s Millenium Park and Daley Plaza.

Chicago never intended to be a leader in municipal Wi-Fi, said a city official, preferring instead to watch what happened in other cities and learn from that. Some of what’s happening isn’t pretty. In San Francisco, bickering among elected officials has stalled progress for months. In Houston, where the city council approved a contract with EarthLink last spring, work on the project has yet to start. As municipal wireless projects have hit one snag after another, prices for wired Internet have fallen. AT&T charges $20 a month for speeds of 1.5 megabits a second in Chicago and will provide connections half that fast for $10 to new subscribers, although more than 10 percent of residences in the metropolitan area cannot get digital subscriber line service because they are located too far from AT&T’s switching centers.