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Google joins group to offer free Wi-Fi in Milpitas

As a member of a nonprofit coalition, the search giant is working with the Silicon Valley suburb in an effort to keep its citywide Wi-Fi network open to the public.

Google is lending its hand to help revive public access to a citywide Wi-Fi network abandoned by EarthLink.

Last week, The Milpitas Post Web site reported that a nonprofit group, made up of Google, I-Net Solutions, and some wireless equipment makers, is working with the city to operate the network to provide free wireless service to residents.

Under a new agreement, which has yet to be finalized, Milpitas will contract with the nonprofit to provide technical support and to run the service, which will provide Wi-Fi Internet access to the city government as well as free access to residents.

The free public access Wi-Fi network would operate in a similar way to the one offered by Google in Mountain View, Calif.

Google, in particular, has been a big proponent of citywide Wi-Fi networks. In a recent policy blog, Derek Slater, a policy analyst for Google, said that municipal Wi-Fi has gotten a bum rap from the press.

"Rather than prematurely writing off the idea, it's important to critically study municipal networks' successes and shortcomings," he said in the blog. "As we've written about before, America generally lags behind the rest of the developed world in broadband penetration and speeds, and we ought to be exploring many different solutions, both private and public, to bring fast, affordable Internet access to everyone."

Google is not only supporting the idea of free citywide Wi-Fi networks, but it's also pushing the Federal Communications Commission to open up new "white space" spectrum between broadcast TV channels that can also be used to provide free or inexpensive broadband access.

The Milpitas network was originally built by EarthLink, which spent $1 million on the infrastructure equipment. It charged a monthly fee to residents to access the service. But earlier this year, EarthLink abandoned the network when it exited the citywide Wi-Fi business. It handed the network assets over to the city, which has used it for police and fire public safety.

Milpitas is not the first of EarthLink's old networks to get help from new investors. EarthLink's wireless network in Philadelphia was supposed to be dismantled in June, but at the eleventh hour a group of local investors, called Network Acquisition Company, stepped in to save the network. It currently offers free Wi-Fi access in parts of the city.