Philadelphia revives citywide Wi-Fi project

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Philadelphia revived an effort on Tuesday to provide free citywide wireless Internet access in a project to be run by a new group of investors.

The city aims to provide free-of-charge outdoor Web access throughout its 135 square miles, which would be the largest area covered by public Wi-fi of any U.S. city.

The project, initially launched in 2005, came close to failure when EarthLink, the company that installed wireless transmitters on light poles, abandoned the effort in May amid complaints about signal weakness.

In a city of 1.4 million, about 6,000 people signed up for the EarthLink service.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said the city -- which is providing no public money for the Wi-fi project -- believed it was important to revive the project because of the economic opportunities that can flow from increased Internet access.

“We now have the potential to reach more people with this network than in any other city in America,” he said.

The network, which is about 80 percent complete, will now be taken over by Network Acquisition Company LLC, a new company of local investors that will assess the infrastructure and plans to complete the wireless coverage. Service for current users should be uninterrupted, officials said.

EarthLink had difficulty beaming the signal into homes, which City Councilman Bill Green cited as a reason the EarthLink model failed. But he also praised EarthLink for helping to save the network.

Under the new system, people can buy a $200 device called a repeater to bring the signal inside buildings.

The new owners plan to underwrite the cost of public Wi-fi

by persuading businesses to buy technology allowing employees to access corporate networks from remote locations.

Revenue from corporate customers would pay for infrastructure to distribute a wireless signal to outdoor areas throughout the city, notably to low-income areas where many residents don’t have the Internet access that could improve their ability to find jobs or access public services.

Officials from the new company declined to say how much they had paid for the EarthLink asset, how much they plan to invest or when the network would be complete. Co-founder Mark Rupp said it would take “months” to assess what work needs to be done to complete the network.

Editing by Daniel Trotta