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This week in wireless cities

Municipal Wi-Fi programs are burgeoning on both U.S. coasts, but challenges remain--even for Google.

Municipal Wi-Fi programs are slowly becoming a reality, but challenges remain--even for Google.

The city of Philadelphia awarded EarthLink a high-profile contract to build a Wi-Fi network stretching over 135 square miles, marking the formal start of the largest municipal effort in the United States to offer wireless Net access.

The Internet service provider won the contract to place Wi-Fi access points on telephone poles throughout the city, beating out a competing proposal from Hewlett-Packard. Most city residents will pay $20 a month for access.

While other municipalities have created local wireless networks, Philadelphia is the largest city to date to formalize such a project. The City of Brotherly Love's plans differ from those of many other municipalities in one crucial way: EarthLink will own the hardware and take the financial risk associated with providing the service. If it flops, city taxpayers won't lose the money.

On the other side of the country, the City by the Bay announced plans to unplug Internet access as well. Google is the celebrity runner in San Francisco's race to become the first U.S. city with affordable or free wireless access to the Internet--but any such deal faces likely lawsuits or legislation, Mayor Gavin Newsom said.

Dissenters, such as phone giants SBC Communications and Verizon Communications and cable company Comcast, have publicly and privately criticized the city's project, calling it "foolhardy," given that low-cost access to the Internet is already widely available to the public in San Francisco.

The city received 26 Wi-Fi proposals from a range of companies, including Internet service provider EarthLink, San Francisco wireless upstart Feeva and cell phone company Cingular. Other notable companies submitting proposals include Ericsson, Motorola, Nortel and SkyTel.

Like in Philadelphia, the project could be privatized, public-private or municipally owned, Newsom said. All considered proposals would cost San Francisco taxpayers "little or nothing," he said.

However, consumer privacy is a concern, Newsom said in response to a question at the conference about the possibility that companies providing Wi-Fi access would be looking to gather data on the location of users to deliver ads, in an example of the value of such information.

That prospect has some people concerned. "They will know much more information about your activities" than they can glean from a stationary PC, said Ira Victor, managing partner at security information firm Data Clone Labs.

"There are still a lot of unanswered questions, the most important being related to privacy," blogger Charles Jade wrote on the Ars Technica Web site. "Will Google be watching users? It's unlikely a city like San Francisco, with a large contingent of professional protesters and unreconstructed communists, would support such a compromise, but we will know shortly."

CNET News.com readers were more than a little skeptical of Google's motives. "There is no way that Google will offer something for free indefinitely," Dave Cawdell wrote in News.com's TalkBack forum. "Ultimately, they will either charge for the service OR leverage the service to make money (perhaps through targeted online advertising)."