For about $10 million, officials in Philadelphia, with a population of 1.5 million, believe they can turn all 135 square miles of their city into the largest wireless internet hot spot in the United States, and one of the largest in the world. The project would give students living within city limits access to a high-speed internet connection from school, from home–and everywhere in between.

Impressive as it will be, Philadelphia’s network would be less than half the size of the network already in place in Sydney, Australia. The network of Unwired Australia Pty Limited, at 3.5 million potential Sydney users and covering more than 1,200 square miles, claims to be the largest non-line-of-sight broadband wireless network in the world.

Even so, Philadelphia’s ambitious plan, now in the works, would involve placing hundreds, or maybe even thousands, of small transmitters around the city–probably atop lampposts. Each would be capable of communicating with the wireless networking cards that now come standard with many computers.

During a press conference with reporters, Dianah Neff, the city’s chief information officer, said the network would have tremendous implications for students enrolled in both K-12 and higher-education institutions–including providing home internet access to those who otherwise might be forced to do without. Once complete, she said, the network would deliver broadband internet almost anywhere radio waves can travel–including poor neighborhoods where high-speed connections are now rare.

Vincent DeTolla, executive director of educational technology for the 200,000-student Philadelphia school district, expects construction of a citywide network to narrow the digital divide, providing students and parents with an effective, never-before-realized communications and learning resource.

Under the plan, parents and students would be able to go online from their home computers and log on via a secure password to the school district’s internal network, where they’ll enjoy online access to report cards, communicate with teachers, and access other educational resources–all part of a new instructional management system powered by educational technology provider SchoolNet, headquartered in New York City.

The technology also will enable students to access supplemental services and other standards-based curricula from their homes, DeTolla said–a perk that could go a long way in helping educators close the achievement gap.

Also under consideration is the creation of a large-scale, one-to-one computing initiative in which select groups of students would receive devices such as laptop computers or tablet PCs, which they could use to access the internet from anywhere in the city. Another possibility would include providing students with handheld devices such as palmOne computers–though these projects are still on the drawing board, DeTolla said.

In terms of costs, the city likely would offer the service either for free or at prices far lower than the $35 to $60 a month charged by commercial providers, according to Neff.

“If you’re out on your front porch with a laptop, you could dial in, register at no charge, and be able to access a high-speed connection,” she said. “It’s a technology whose time is here.”

But that doesn’t mean everyone automatically would have access to the internet, DeTolla said. Questions still remain as to how to provide low-cost hardware solutions to families who can’t afford to purchase a computer, especially a high-end machine with wireless functionality. One option is to offer families with students enrolled in the school system a refurbished machine with a Pentium III processor and compatible wireless card for as little as $200.

“I’m really excited about it,” DeTolla said of the project. “I’ve just got to find a way to get devices into everyone’s hands. … The digital divide in terms of hardware is still an issue.”

In terms of wireless access from school, DeTolla said the city already provides high-speed internet access across its more than 256 school buildings. The district is currently deploying an independent wireless network to be used in schools. Because of the sensitive nature of school data and student information, DeTolla said he wouldn’t consider putting schools on the citywide network–though parents would be able to access the network from their homes using a password.

If the plan becomes a reality, Philadelphia could leap to the forefront of a growing number of cities that have contemplated offering wireless internet service to residents, workers, and guests.

In 2003, officials in Houston County, Ga., launched a first-of-its-kind program with chip maker Intel Corp. to experiment with a fledgling wireless standard known as WiMax (see “Schools could thrive in completely wireless county.”). The project, which has yet to launch, would make Houston the first fully wireless county in the nation.

Chaska, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis, began offering citywide wireless internet access this year for $16 a month. The signal covers about 13 square miles. Corpus Christi, Texas, has been experimenting with a system covering 20 square miles that would be used–for now–only by government employees.

Over the past year, Cleveland has added some 4,000 wireless transmitters in its University Circle, Midtown, and lakefront districts. The service is free and is available to anyone who passes through the areas.

Some 1,016 people were logged in to the system at 2:20 p.m. on Aug. 31, said Lev Gonick, chief information officer at Case Western Reserve University, which is spearheading the project and paying for a chunk of it.

“We like to say it should be like the air you breathe–free and available everywhere,” Gonick said. “We look at this like PBS or [National Public Radio]. It should be a public resource.”

In New York, city officials are negotiating to sell wireless carriers space on 18,000 lampposts for as much as $21.6 million annually. T-Mobile USA Inc., Nextel Partners Inc., IDT Corp., and three other wireless carriers want the equipment to increase their networks’ capacity.

One part of the proposed 15-year deal is cheap Wi-Fi phones for neighborhoods where less than 95 percent of residents have home phones. IDT, which has agreed to market the cheaper phone service in those neighborhoods, would pay lower rates for poles there than other companies would in wealthier areas.

Wireless technology has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years and has become drastically less expensive.

The new “wireless mesh” technology under consideration in Philadelphia has made it possible to expand those similar networks over entire neighborhoods, with the help of relatively cheap antennas.

Neff estimated it would cost about $1.5 million a year to maintain the system, after the initial $10 million installation.

Exactly how the city plans to fund and sustain the massive project is still unclear, but Neff said many options are under consideration. One possibility includes charging universities with closed wireless networks a fee to provide wireless access to students who live off-campus. Another idea: providing the citywide service to business travelers for a fee–so they needn’t pay for access to multiple hot spots in hotels, coffee shops, and elsewhere–during their visit.

Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street, a technology buff who carries a wireless handheld computer everywhere he goes, appointed a 14-member committee last week to work out the specifics of his city’s plan, including any fees or restrictions on its use. Neff said the network could be up and running within a year.

Links:

City of Philadelphia

School District of Philadelphia

SchoolNet

Unwired Australia Pty Limited