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Wi-Fi goes (West) Hollywood

The home of the Sunset Strip wants to build a free, citywide wireless network.

Surfing on the Sunset Strip?

The city of West Hollywood, home of the renowned Sunset Strip, wants to join the growing ranks of municipalities making free wireless broadband available to anyone.

The city plans to choose an equipment supplier by late February. Construction of an initial network covering portions of Santa Monica Boulevard will begin soon after, and a citywide wireless broadband system could be in place in about two years, according to a request for proposals the city recently issued.

Like the authorities in immediate neighbor Culver City, and in cities like Philadelphia, civic leaders in West Hollywood think free broadband that uses relatively inexpensive and ubiquitous Wi-Fi wireless networks would enhance tourism, help businesses draw customers, make life easier for city employees and improve public safety.

But as in Philadelphia, the move could blow up in the city's face. Though competition between cable and phone companies has become increasingly cutthroat, these archrivals are shelving their differences and have been teaming up to derail community broadband projects in small and large cities alike.

At the end of 2004, Verizon Communications successfully lobbied for a Pennsylvania law to bar local governments from offering their own broadband services. The law was considered a blow to an ambitious effort by Philadelphia to offer wireless broadband service to its residents. City and carrier reached an agreement that will let Philadelphia's plan go forward, but the law demonstrates the political power major providers can wield.

West Hollywood's information technology manager, Brian Ganley, said the free service won't cost the area's broadband providers enough business to be worth worrying about.

"We are not building this to compete with anyone," Ganley said. "This is not something where residents will cancel their cable or digital subscriber lines."

It remains to be seen just what the broadband providers' reactions will be. SBC, the local phone service and broadband provider, has yet to object to similar projects under way in neighboring Culver City and Long Beach, according to Ganley.

An SBC representative said the company has raised objections to other municipal buildouts in the past, but was unaware of any ongoing efforts in southern California. "We are not telling cities not to do this, but we just want them to know what they are getting into," said an SBC spokesman.