updated 8/18/2005 9:11:44 PM ET 2005-08-19T01:11:44

City officials have dropped AT&T from their short list of companies vying to provide the region with high-speed wireless Internet access, leaving two groups competing for a contract that will launch the ambitious project.

Wireless Philadelphia, a nonprofit overseeing the deployment of a citywide Wi-Fi network, will begin negotiating in earnest Thursday with consortiums led by Hewlett-Packard and Earthlink, spokeswoman Dianah Neff said Wednesday.

The organization expects to pick the winner in about 30 days and then move into final contractual negotiations, said Neff, the city's chief information officer.

Network construction would start at the end of September or beginning of October, with the city being completely covered within a year after that, Neff said.

Wireless Philadelphia had planned to announce the winning proposal July 29, along with a backup plan. Neff said nothing specific held up the decision.

"Unfortunately, it took longer than we had anticipated," she said.

The winning vendor will design, deploy and maintain the Wi-Fi system throughout the city's 135 square miles. The goal is to give low-income residents access to affordable high-speed Internet service, though it will be available to anyone.

Neff said the city is aiming to spend between $15 million and $18 million, which will cover costs for the network's infrastructure, maintenance, support and operating expenditures for the first two years.

"We believe that it will be in and around those figures," said Neff.

After that, she said, the project is expected to be self-financing, with services costing $16 to $20 a month.

Neff expects the final contract to be for seven to 10 years, with the vendor's performance reviewed annually.

The two finalists _ Hewlett-Packard and Earthlink _ beat out 10 companies. Hewlett-Packard's group includes Aptilo Networks, Alvarion, Business Information Group and Tropos. Earthlink linked with Motorola Canopy and Tropos.

AT&T, which is no longer in the running, had partnered with Lucent and BelAir Networks.

Philadelphia was the first major city to announce plans for a citywide wireless Internet service. The project has drawn criticism from phone and cable companies, which would be competing with the network for Internet users.

San Francisco officials announced Tuesday that they, too, are soliciting Wi-Fi plans. Proposals are due in six weeks and Mayor Gavin Newsom said he hopes to have the citywide plan at least partly "manifested" within six months.

Portland, Ore., Minneapolis, Charleston, S.C., and Orlando, Fla., also are at various stages in the same process.

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

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