PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Philadelphia has finished testing its wireless Internet project, setting the stage for America’s biggest citywide Wi-Fi network that will also offer access to low-income households, officials said on Thursday.
The city government this week approved results from a 15-square-mile test zone where people can access the Internet for $21.95 a month or $9.95 if they qualify for low-income assistance.
Access is free in parks and other outdoor spaces, and for people participating in community programs such as employment training or housing assistance.
By the end of this year, Philadelphia will have wireless Internet access throughout its 135 square miles in a project being watched by many cities throughout the world, said Greg Goldman, chief executive of Wireless Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization set up by the city to implement the plan.
Although other cities have wireless “hotspots,” no other U.S. city as large as Philadelphia has total Wi-Fi coverage, Goldman said.
“This is a major step toward achieving our vision of the entire city connected,” Goldman said. “Low-income families can begin using the powers of the Internet to improve their educational, employment and life opportunities.”
Wireless Philadelphia aims to provide Internet access for the more than 300,000 households — about half of the city — that cannot currently get on the Web, and so are unable to perform basic economic activities such as applying for jobs whose employers only accept online applications, Goldman said.
Philadelphia, with a quarter of its 1.5 million people officially below the federal poverty line, is one of the poorest U.S. cities.
For 2,000 of the neediest customers, Wireless Philadelphia plans to provide free refurbished laptops, a one-year Wi-Fi account, and educational and technical support in a program that will cost $3 million once funds are raised, Goldman said.
The network is being funded, built and managed by Earthlink, an Atlanta-based Internet provider, which plans to invest $13.5 million to complete the project. The company will pay revenue-sharing fees to Wireless Philadelphia to support its “digital inclusion” project for low-income users.