AT&T to build a city Wi-Fi network

AT&T Inc., at times an opponent of municipal wireless networks, is now going to build one.

Riverside, California, on Tuesday approved a plan for AT&T to build a wireless network throughout developed areas of the city of about 300,000. In addition to public Wi-Fi, AT&T will deliver wireless service to city employees and public safety agencies on a licensed frequency. Free and paid public services should be available starting early next year, according to AT&T.

AT&T, the nation's largest carrier, has pushed for laws that would block certain kinds of municipal networks -- specifically, ones owned by governments. It now says its position hasn't changed, the market has.

"We believe that the ownership of networks, and the management and ongoing operation, should be left to the professional network managers," said Carl Nerup, a vice president of business development. The company also is working on a city wireless deal with Springfield, Illinois, and has responded to an RFP (request for proposals) from Sacramento, California.

AT&T will own and operate the Riverside network, which will be built by MetroFi Inc., under a five-year renewable contract with the city. The carrier will use city assets such as light poles for positioning access points, and the city will pay for its special licensed service. Other service providers will be able to buy wholesale access and resell services.

Anyone in Riverside will be able to use a free, advertising-supported service that delivers between 200K bps (bits per second) and 500K bps. A service with up to 1M bps will be available for about US$20 per month or on a daily basis. But subscribers to AT&T-Yahoo DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) will be able to buy the monthly Wi-Fi service for about $7 or $8, Nerup said.

AT&T has changed its tune because the legislative fight against municipal networks has failed in most parts of the U.S.

"They decided, you know, 'If you can't beat them, join them,'" said Esme Vos, founder of MuniWireless.com.

AT&T's Nerup said cities have shifted to embrace public-private partnerships like the Riverside deal. But a deal with the incumbent carrier doesn't meet one goal of many municipal-network backers, according to Vos: introducing a new competitor.

Cities that turn to incumbents for municipal wireless should get strong contracts to ensure they meet commitments such as service to lower-income communities, said Craig Settles, a municipal wireless analyst in Oakland, California.

But by going with an incumbent, cities can get a whole package of wired and wireless services that works together, said Gartner Inc. analyst Ken Dulaney. In addition, they can be more sure the infrastructure will work and be upgraded, versus turning to an unproven provider that might run out of money down the road, he said.

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