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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveiled today an ambitious plan to establish Chicago as a fiber hub and provide free Wi-Fi in public spaces.

The city kicked off its “Chicago Broadband Challenge” by turning on free Wi-Fi in Millennium Park Monday morning. As part of the initiative the Broadband Challenge, all parks and open spaces in Chicago will eventually offer free internet.

“Chicago will be one of the most connected cities in the world,” said Emanuel. “The establishment of a world-class broadband network in Chicago will create thousands of jobs and dramatically improve educational opportunities, economic development, health care services, and general quality of life throughout the city.”

The City of Chicago is releasing a Request for Information (RFI) today, that seeks to engage private companies, universities, and other organizations to accomplish three main goals: building world-class broadband infrastructure for the city; extending broadband service into underserved areas; and providing free Wi-Fi access in public spaces throughout Chicago.

Emanuel said his first goal is to build a network infrastructure that will offer Internet service at “gigabit” speeds, which are about 100 times faster than a basic cable modem. Google built such a network in Kansas City, Mo., that bypassed the local cable and phone companies.

The news release did not indicate how much it would cost.

Municipal WiFi went bust in a huge way between 2006 and 2007. It cost too much. The short range of WiFi meant reliable, ubiquitous service required spending more than $100,000 per square mile. The 4G technologies of WiMAX and LTE provided ubiquitous coverage more cheaply. The 4G infrastructure required far fewer nodes and backhaul requirements, but the licensed nature of cellular monopolies meant monthly subscriptions were required.

Now, however, WiFi is faster, cheaper, and more ubiquitous. Demand for WiFi is exploding with smartphones, now used by nearly half the population.

Cellular companies are realizing that small, cheap LTE antennas on nearly every block could be enabled by fiber. Basestation servers can run tiny, WiFi-sized cellular nodes, like Alcatel-Lucent’s lightRadio, remotely. But they need fiber.

That’s where cities come in.

As a vendor-neutral provider — with access to public rights-of-way and infrastructure — municipalities might be able to tap into a growing need of cellular providers to provide microcells and carrier-branded WiFi.

Conceivably, carrier agreements could be locked down before construction starts. Private money, not taxpayer money, might be able to build such a network. In return for access to rights of way, cities like Chicago might be able get significant public benefits.

Carriers plan to commandeer free WiFi using “Hotspot 2.0″. Hotspot 2.0 will enable cellular subscribers to roam freely to WiFi hotspots without having to enter passwords. But they’ll need fiber. Same deal for small cells.

For consumers, the new unlicensed 5 Ghz 802.11ac standard, using beam forming, may deliver range comparable to 2.4 GHz band (about 100 feet) with far less congestion and faster speed.

White Spaces, using unused television channels, may also have a potential in penetrating homes at low cost.

Maybe Chicago has the right approach. Maybe free municipal Wi-Fi is an idea whose time has come. Again.

Related Dailywireless articles include; Googl Fiber Launches in Kansas City, Street light Provides Wi-Fi, Cell Coverage, Hotspot 2.0, Intel: Basestation in the Cloud, Clearwire: On the Hot Zone, Sprint to use LightRadio for Small Cells, LTE iPhone: Game Changer?, London: The Biggest Small Network in the World, Wireless 2nd Quarter: Good, Indian/Asian Telecom Growth Rates, South Korea Completes Nationwide LTE Coverage, Mary Meeker: Internet Trends 2012, China Mobile + Apple: Getting Closer?, USA: 332 Million Mobiles , 4G: One Third of All Smartphones

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