updated 1/18/2005 8:14:14 PM ET 2005-01-19T01:14:14

The nation's largest municipal Wi-Fi cloud will blanket Philadelphia by the summer of 2006 -- with Internet access free in public parks and steeply discounted for low-income residents.

Chief Information Officer Dianah Neff provided that outline on Tuesday, speaking from Cambridge, Mass., where she was attending a conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Businesses and other residents will pay more for the service but still get "broadband speeds at dial-up rates," Neff said of the ambitious plan to cover all the city's 135 square miles with wireless Internet.

Neff said a public-private partnership of a kind "we haven't seen before" will run the service, which is expected to break even within four years. She declined to be more specific, saying Mayor John Street would announce details of a financial plan for the service on Feb. 7.

Dozens of cities and towns nationwide have either begun or announced similar plans, but Philadelphia's would be the largest for public use.

"Everybody is watching Philadelphia," said Frank Hanzlik, managing director of Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry group. "This is something that hasn't been done before, at least not on this scale."

Regional and long-distance phone companies that sell broadband Internet to consumers and businesses have lobbied for laws to regulate or bar such municipal competition, but Philadelphia and Verizon Communications Inc., the dominant local phone carrier, struck an agreement last November to allow the city to proceed.

However, under legislation signed by Gov. Ed Rendell, all other municipalities in the state would have to get permission of the local telephone company to provide broadband or any other telecommunications service. If the company rejects the plan, it would have to offer a similar service within 14 months.

Neff said Philadelphia's service will offer upload and download bandwidth of 1 megabit per second. In early March, the city will ask companies to submit proposals to build and run the wireless network, which is expected to cost $10.5 million to erect.

Neff has been pressing manufacturers to offer low-cost computers as a part of the project.

Proponents say that cheap, municipally provided Internet access will help bridge the "digital divide" that separates rich from poor.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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