Baltimore proposes 'inclusive' Wi-Fi plan

Similar to an effort in Philadelphia, Baltimore's draft plan focuses on bringing Internet to low-income families.

Following in the footsteps of several other U.S. cities, Baltimore earlier this week announced plans to introduce inexpensive, citywide Wi-Fi access.

Citywide Wi-Fi access is "quite the topic" these days, according to Mario Armstrong, technology advocate to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. And he's right--cities from Philadelphia to San Francisco have recently announced plans to create wireless Internet networks for their municipalities.

But Armstrong insists that Baltimore's wireless proposal is a different one.

"A lot of cities focused on the technology itself--the type of antenna, whether it would be accessible indoors or outdoors, rather than who's going to use it and how," Armstrong says. In Baltimore, interested communications companies will be allowed to use the city's infrastructure to create their own plans for constructing the network.

The city's concern, he adds, should not be the technicalities but the end result. "We're trying to start from the application side first," he explains.

For Baltimore, that application is "digital inclusion," connecting technology with segments of the population that would normally not have access to it.

The city's Wi-Fi proposal, still in its exploratory phases, is part of a wider technology initiative, known as "Connected Communities, Connected City," launched by O'Malley's administration last November. Now, new residential development in Baltimore must be built with the infrastructure for high-speed Internet access in order to receive municipal funding.

The city has also partnered with a bank to set up loans for families in public housing so they can afford inexpensive PCs. The interest from the loans is funneled back to the bank to fund other families' computers. It's a plan similar to the one being implemented in Philadelphia.

That way, Armstrong and the rest of O'Malley's administration hope to alleviate one of the potential problems that has been raised many times in the debate over the ups and downs of citywide Wi-Fi: whether or not citizens would buy government-subsidized access. If computers are made available to low-income Baltimore residents, Armstrong reasons, that would create a market for municipal wireless.

Jumping on the Wi-Fi bandwagon months after other cities has been advantageous for Baltimore, according to Armstrong. "We had the benefit of looking at what other cities had done, because we weren't the first," he says.

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