AT&T, start-up team in citywide Wi-Fi bid

AT&T and MetroFi have drafted a joint proposal to bid on the citywide Wi-Fi network being built in Riverside, Calif.

AT&T has submitted a proposal with Wi-Fi start-up MetroFi to build a citywide network in Riverside, Calif.

The companies submitted a proposal to build and operate the wireless broadband network on Friday. The proposed network would provide free Internet access throughout the city with download speeds of 500Kbps and upload speeds of 256Kbps. In exchange for free access, the company will include a persistent advertisement on every Web page. According to the proposal, MetroFi would build the entire Wi-Fi network and operate it throughout the 65 square miles of the city that will be blanketed with Wi-Fi.

In addition to the free service, AT&T has proposed offering a paid service to Riverside residents. If the MetroFi/AT&T proposal is accepted by the city, residents will be able to subscribe to a 1Mbps download broadband service for roughly $19.95 per month.

Cities across the country are turning to Wi-Fi, a wireless Internet access technology that uses unlicensed radio spectrum, as an affordable way to add another broadband alternative to their communities. Some cities, such as Baltimore, Philadelphia and San Francisco, are hoping to bridge the digital divide between rich and poor by allowing a third party to use the city's utility poles to deploy radios for transmitting wireless broadband signals throughout the city.

Regardless of the motivation, interest in citywide Wi-Fi has skyrocketed over the past year. Internet service provider EarthLink has emerged as one of the most prominent companies to build Wi-Fi networks in large cities. It has won bids in Philadelphia, San Francisco and New Orleans. And in June it completed its first major citywide Wi-Fi network, in Anaheim, Calif.

When cities first started looking into building Wi-Fi, big telephone companies, such as AT&T and Verizon Communications, and cable operators, such as Comcast and Time Warner, lobbied against them. Specifically, they opposed cities owning and operating Wi-Fi networks, fearing they would unfairly control the market. But now that many cities are considering partnerships with private firms, the cable operators and phone companies are starting to enter the bidding process to build these networks.

AT&T has submitted proposals to build Wi-Fi networks in other cities, but so far has not won a contract.

By contrast startup MetroFi has already won bids to build citywide Wi-Fi networks in 12 cities, including Portland, Ore., Santa Clara, Calif. and Aurora, Ill. The company's founder and chief executive officer, Chuck Haas, said that partnering with a company that is the size of and has the brand recognition of AT&T should help it win more business in the long run.

"MetroFi is a 4-year-old start-up," Haas said. "We're a leader in designing and building Wi-Fi networks, but what we lack is brand recognition and the financial resources of a larger company like AT&T, which we could use to market the service. So really the partnership is very complimentary."

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