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The grand city of Philadelphia unveiled today an ambitious plan to coat the city with Wi-Fi, using a mix of public and private funds to provide the service.

Dianah Neff, the city's CIO, has presented a proposal to mayor John Street that would see all of Philadelphia's 1.6m residents receive the wireless web by late 2005 or early 2006. The city hopes to complement existing wireless services at hotels, coffee shops, businesses and homes while also opening up wireless access to some residents who might be unable to afford typical high-speed Internet costs. The city expects the initial rollout to cost $10m with annual maintenance costs coming in around $1.5m.

"We believe that for a city to succeed in the future, it must be a digital city," Neff said, in an interview with The Register.

The most obvious benefit of the sweeping Wi-Fi connections would be to bridge the digital divide and provide solid Internet connections to low income areas. Neff also believes that Wi-Fi could improve the experience of tourists and make Philadelphia an attractive destination for business travelers. Lastly, all residents would be able to chat or surf away in parks, linking the great outdoors with technology.

A number of cities have proposed similar ideas around Wi-Fi, although typically on a smaller scale. Neff, however, has proposed some of the most intriguing ideas to date on how to pay for the service.

The city would be willing to front the initial money to build the Wi-Fi network. It's then hoping tourists, schools and businesses would help cover the ongoing maintenance costs. The city could, for example, charge tourists $5 a day for unlimited Wi-Fi access, which would include connections at their hotels or say Starbucks. The city would then track where the visitor accessed the network, and if a visitor spent a portion of their time at a Starbucks then Starbucks would receive a percentage of the $5 fee. It's not yet clear how this Wi-Fi plan fits in with Philly's homosexual tourist love, but there's surely room for some interesting promotions.

Universities could also benefit by providing both on-campus and off-campus students equal access to the Internet. Students are typically required to pay for the web as part of their communications fee. Businesses might also pay a little extra to have a secure portion of the citywide network for their own use, Neff said.

In total, Philadelphia wants to reduce the overall cost people must pay for Wi-Fi service, hoping ground will be made up by getting more people to use the technology. It's hard to say whether or not a company such as Starbucks that has spent millions on Wi-Fi will appreciate the cut rates, but Neff urged that these are just early proposals and that other ways to pay for the service may emerge.

Many businesses and residents would clearly want their own Wi-Fi connections and would be willing to pay an ISP for this service. It's hard to imagine too many companies opening up their networks to City Hall.

But for those who can't afford price high-speed connections, this plan seems like a great idea. ®

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