Merits of wireless Internet in Downtown are debated

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A Downtown wireless Internet network wouldn't get in the way of a later citywide system, one computing executive told Pittsburgh City Council yesterday.

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Yes it could, said another.

Council held a public hearing on a proposal by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership to give Kentucky-based US Wireless Online the right to put antennae on 53 light posts Downtown, around PNC Park, and near Mellon Arena. Nearby laptop users would be able to go online outdoors and on the lower floors of buildings, free for two hours a day, at speeds nine times faster than a dial-up modem.

The big question was whether Downtown "Wi-Fi" would make the other 88 neighborhoods less of a prize to providers who are building such networks throughout San Francisco, Philadelphia and other cities.

A representative of EarthLink Inc. said that firm is willing to build a citywide network here, at its own expense. Glenn Booth, director of market development for the Atlanta-based firm, said the existence of a Downtown system wouldn't change that, and added that EarthLink's technology is "extremely compatible" with the US Wireless system.

Tom Dauer, managing principal of local company Electronic Properties, countered that he's talked with four wireless firms that said the Downtown-only proposal "diminishes their interest" in Pittsburgh. He said his firm's ongoing effort to build a high-speed wireless system throughout the city won't change.

Pittsburgh may miss out on millions of dollars in fees that other cities are getting from providers like EarthLink, Mr. Dauer said. The city would neither spend anything on the Downtown system, nor get a cut from it.

Stephen MacIsaac, director of the local group Wireless Neighborhoods, said the infrastructure US Wireless will put Downtown could set the stage for more neighborhood Wi-Fi. Mike Cooper of Washington County-based Internet provider PulseNet Inc. said his company hopes to sell its customers access to the Downtown system, and sees it as a step toward a regional network.

Downtown Partnership CEO Michael Edwards said he is still negotiating an agreement with US Wireless. He said he has raised $75,000 of the $525,000 he wants from foundations to pay for the antennae, marketing and legal and administrative costs of getting the system up and running.

Rodney Akers, deputy director of city information systems, said Mayor Bob O'Connor's administration is working on a citywide Wi-Fi plan, but did not provide details.

Council is set to cast an initial vote tomorrow to allow the antennae on Downtown light posts.

Rich Lord can be reached at or 412-263-1542.


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