Citywide wireless access promises Internet connections in your park and on your street corner. It may even draw big business to your city. But no one knows if it will live up to its hype.


Just about everything you could ever want to buy is for sale at Philadelphia's Ninth Street Italian Market, a sprawling, shabby chic assemblage of shops and outdoor stalls that's been in business for a century. Fresh linguine? Sure. Prosciutto di Parma? Lots of it. Pigs' feet and chicken feet? Yes and yes. Lingerie? Check. Sporting goods. Got them. Diamonds? You bet.

Perhaps if you think for a year, you could imagine something not for sale among the market's offerings. But by then, you'll be able to stand on Ninth Street, whip out your
Wi-Fi-enabled laptop, hop on a wireless Internet connection, and shop for whatever the market is lacking. That's the promise of a $10 million city plan to turn Philadelphia into a giant hot spot of wireless Internet access. If the project works - and success is not certain - Philadelphia will be the first major U.S. city to build what is known in geek-speak as a "Wi-Fi cloud." With cities increasingly looking to technology to one-up each other in the battle for business, tourism, and skilled workers, it likely won't be the last.

"Cities all over America are envious of Philadelphia's head start on this," said Mayor John F. Street when he announced the project last summer. "They are working feverishly to catch up."

Forgiving the mayor his enthusiasm, "envious" and "feverishly" may be overstating it. But major cities in the U.S. and abroad are definitely interested in their own Wi-Fi clouds. Minneapolis, Portland, Austin, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Chicago are all considering projects to turn their communities into hot spots. Overseas, both Taipei and Tokyo have already okayed construction on separate projects, spending $70 million and $12 million respectively.

The lure is understandable. Wi-Fi use is spreading. Today, most laptops have Wi-Fi cards included. Many desktop systems come with Wi-Fi, too. The Telecommunications Industry Association says spending on wireless communications will jump from $158.6 billion this year to $212.5 billion by 2008. Even so, there are still only 50,000 Wi-Fi hot spots worldwide, according to one estimate. Maybe the last hotel you stayed in was one of them. Or the coffee shop down the street might be Wi-Fi enabled. But the closest hot spot isn't always that convenient. So any city that's totally wireless would stand out among its peers.

"Municipalities have to do more and more innovative things to attract businesses and residents," says Rick Rotondo, director of marketing for Motorola's Mesh Networks Product Group, which is working with several cities to install Wi-Fi networks. "Having Wi-Fi is very appealing, particularly to younger citizens."