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Cities join Intel's Wi-Fi program

Thirteen municipalities participate in a pilot program, called "Digital Communities," to build commercially viable wireless networks.

Intel and several corporate partners launched a program on Thursday aimed at helping cities use wireless networks to better serve their citizens--and perhaps make a little cash on the side.

Thirteen cities are currently participating in the initiative, called "Digital Communities." Its goal is to give cities technical resources and discounts to help them establish or build out their broadband wireless infrastructure so they can better connect with police and fire personnel as well as with public-works employees such as meter readers and building inspectors.

The program also educates city leaders on ways they can use their wireless network as a commercial service, by selling access to the system and by providing wireless services to consumers.

Intel's project is heavily supported by other technology companies, including Cisco, Dell, IBM, and German-owned SAP. Intel, which has been for several years, is also working closely with, an online site devoted to municipal wireless broadband, to help develop case studies focused on Wi-Fi network development.

The program could be a boon to cities that don't already have the expertise it takes to build a commercially viable wireless network, said JupiterResarch analyst Julie Ask. A boon, that is, if they can get the public behind the project.

"Communities are going to have a hard time persuading their constituents that bridging the digital divide or free Wi-Fi on Main Street are worthwhile uses of tax dollars," said Ask. "However, when you mix in a long list of benefits--some quantifiable and some more qualitative--it's a lot easier to get to the point where folks think, 'Yeah, this makes sense.'"

Ask said cities can leverage Intel's investments into a bit of revenue for themselves from a number of sources, such as occasional wireless hotspot users and residents not already served by a broadband Internet service provider.

The program can also help cities save money, Ask said, because support services for city employees in the field can be provided more efficiently using wireless communication.

Administrators in some large cities already view wireless broadband technology as a feasible, low-cost alternative to broadband services provided by commercial carriers such as phone companies and cable companies.

San Francisco announced this week that it is developing a program that would blanket the city's entire 49 square miles with free or inexpensive wireless service. The city will make special efforts to provide broadband access to its low-income neighborhoods, according to the city's mayor, Gavin Newsom.

Cleveland, Ohio; Corpus Christi, Texas; Philadelphia; Portland, Ore.; Duesseldorf, Germany; Jerusalem, Israel; and Taipei, Taiwan, are among the urban communities participating in Intel's project. Other participants are Mangaratiba, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Gyor, Hungary; Principality of Monaco; Seoul, South Korea; Osaka, Japan; and Westminster in London.

Corpus Christi, for example, is installing a 147-square-mile multiuse network that will let private and public users share the same wireless system. Taipei is using its wireless networks to support some 500 agencies, as well as to create an online university program for its 2.63 million citizens.

Cleveland is expecting to expand its wireless network, powered by OneCleveland, to enhance public safety, improve access to health care information and services and expand distance learning.