The D.C. government is preparing to ask companies to bid on building a wireless Internet system through much of the city, including free service for low-income residents.
But unlike other municipalities such as Philadelphia and San Francisco that have commissioned such networks city-wide, the District plans to give its contract to the company that goes furthest in serving low-income residents with free Web access and even free computers and training.
The District's unusual approach means the network might not cover the entire city, leaving some areas unable to get the wireless service, which is expected to carry a monthly fee in higher-income zones.
"Access to technology is like access to books: it's an important medium of communication and learning and opportunity," Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said yesterday in an interview. "Other cities are doing it and I want our city doing it too."
Williams said he was not worried that some areas might get left out. "I think there is sufficient market incentive to serve the other areas of the city. The problem is there isn't sufficient market incentive to serve the lowest-income parts of our city, and that's what I am trying to do here."
The District plans to give the winning company an exclusive, eight-year franchise to attach wireless devices to District-owned street lights and buildings. It will also give the winner some access to the District's private fiber-optic network free of charge to carry wireless traffic on toward the Internet. No tax dollars are to be involved, D.C. officials said.
Bidding companies may submit plans for where they would build the network, how they may charge paying customers and what speeds they will offer them. Depending on how companies respond, their paying customers could, in effect, subsidize free access for the poor.
"The essential evaluation factor will be: The more digital divide clients that you propose to serve within the first three years . . . the higher your ranking will be in the selection process," D.C. Deputy Chief Technology Officer Peter Roy, who is writing the District's request for proposals, said in an interview.
Roy said he hoped construction could begin by the end of this year -- while Williams is still in office -- and said large parts of it could be operational within nine months.
In recent years companies have devised the technology to spread a "cloud" of wireless Internet connectivity using shoe-box-size radio transmitters mounted on street lights. The systems are like the "WiFi" hotspots found in many coffee shops and airport waiting lounges, but they spread the Internet connection across a metropolitan area.
Such networks can be rolled out much more quickly and cheaply than the traditional, time-consuming process of running copper wires, coaxial cables and fiber-optic lines to homes and offices.
Municipal wireless networks have stirred up controversy in Congress and in state legislatures partly because phone and cable companies argue it is unfair to force them to compete with networks that may be supported by a municipality.
Roy said the District would allow companies to propose whatever technology they wished for the network, saying it could include WiFi, a new standard called WiMax or wireless Internet cards produced by cell phone companies.
He said he hoped wireless companies such as Sprint Nextel Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. that already offer such services in the District would consider bidding.
The District also plans to let the winning bidder have the option of serving low-income residents with landline Internet access rather than a wireless system.
Using 2000 Census data, the District has identified the poorest parts of the city -- with about 100,000 residents -- as the highest priority for free service. The top tier -- more than 40,000 people -- is concentrated chiefly in Southeast Washington but includes people in other parts of the city.
The District plans to require that low-income residents receive a minimum speed of 500 kilobits per second downstream -- when data flows to a user's computer from the Internet -- and 150 kilobits per second upstream, from computer to Internet. The downstream speed is about 10 times the speed of standard dial-up access but falls far short of the speeds available with cable modem service or phone companies' DSL lines.
D.C. officials said it is impossible to say exactly where the network will be available and what service may cost paying customers until companies respond to their request for proposals, which has yet to be issued. Roy said the document was nearly completed.
After the request has been issued, D.C. officials must evaluate the proposals, select a winner, negotiate a contract and secure the approval of the D.C. Council.
Verizon, Comcast Corp. and RCN Corp., which are the major companies that provide Internet access over phone and cable lines in the District, all said they will look carefully at the District's proposal when it is published.
"We would be concerned if the government were to use tax dollars and public facilities to subsidize a commercial enterprise that competes with private business, but certainly at this point have no reason to think that is contemplated by the city's proposal," said RCN senior vice president Richard Ramlall.
"In general, municipally sponsored or subsidized Internet proposals are not competitive with Comcast's service because we offer faster speeds, greater reliability and more features," said Comcast spokesman Jim Gordon.
Comcast offers high-speed Internet access -- with a downstream speed of 4 megabits per second -- for $57.95 per month. RCN offers 5 megabits per second downstream for $55.95 and Verizon offers its lowest speed of DSL, at 768 kilobits per second downstream, for $14.95 a month.
EarthLink Inc., which has been chosen to build Philadelphia's wireless project, plans to charge about $20 a month for regular customers and about $10 a month for low-income residents. It will offer speeds of 1 megabit per second.
Proponents argue that bringing high-speed Internet to low-income groups can bring economic, educational and social benefits to people who would otherwise be deprived.
"Information is king," said Rey Ramsey, the chief executive of nonprofit group One Economy Corp., who has been consulted by the District on how to ensure low-income people get the equipment, training and content to make use of the Web access. "What's important today is having access to broadband at an affordable price."