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Wednesday, November 02, 2005  

Technology: Wi-Fi firms seek to Unwire Portland

Portland, Oregon joined the far flung constellation of American cities seeking to offer low price wireless connections throughout their areas yesterday. A half-dozen Wi-Fi providers submitted bids for the city's contract. Two of the biggest names that had expressed interest, local wired line provider Qwest Communications International Inc. and Hewlett Packard Co., dropped out of the process. That left an 800-pound gorilla and some chimpanzees. The Oregonian has been following the plan for the network for a couple years. It reported who the actual contenders are.

Five small companies and one giant applied Monday to take Portland wireless.

Internet service provider EarthLink Inc. is the biggest name in the bunch, joined by wireless companies from around the country and one from Portland. All are vying to build a network that would jointly serve the city and its residents, making high-speed, wireless Internet access available practically anywhere people have computers.

Monday afternoon was the deadline for companies to submit proposals for the Unwire Portland project. Plans tentatively call for the city to pick a winner by year-end and begin negotiating contract specifics. Portland hopes parts of the network will be online early in 2006, though it could take years to build out the entire project.

Details of each proposal will remain under wraps until the city picks a favorite, but bidders themselves have volunteered some details:

EarthLink, VeriLAN Inc. and MobilePro Corp. all indicated they expect wireless access would cost around $20 a month. That's on par with introductory rates for DSL service.

Bidders seem inclined to accept Portland's request that the network be open to competitors. Most proposals would allow rival Internet companies wholesale access to the Portland network, so they could use the network to serve their own customers.

. . .Bidders will be evaluated based on the "public benefit" their work would provide, the technology they plan to use, their proposed fees, business plans and ability to follow through.

The other competitors are said to be MetroFi Inc., of Silicon Valley, Cal., U.S. Internet Corp. of Minneapolis and Winfield Wireless of Vancouver. Estimated cost of building the city-wide network is $15 to $30 million. The expense will be eased by use of city-owned buildings and power poles for transmitters and other gear.

Qwest, which is saddled with debt, reportedly did not believe it would be able to build and operate the wireless network at a profit. HP recently failed to win a contract for a similar project in Philadelphia. Earthlink prevailed there.

Currently, plans for broad wireless networks subsidized by cities are mainly pie in the sky. Wi-Fi access is available through relatively expensive ancillary providers such as Tmobile, Wayport and Boingo Wireless. Combined with bills from cable modem or DSL service, as well as land lines and cell phones, they can result in communications costs of hundreds of dollars per month per household. A goal of wireless network projects is to reduce the cost of being online to a modest fee that even the low-income can afford. It is hoped that the Digital Divide -- the tendency of the affluent to be more likely to have home Internet service and better, faster forms of it -- will be ameliorated by citywide networks. Another hope is that the availability of omnipresent access will make communication within government more efficient.

Reasonably related

Learn the details of Portland's wireless network plan, including maps of the initial zones to be included, at Daily Wireless.

7:00 PM