Since Philadelphia officials announced that they wanted to offer low-cost wireless service to their citizens last fall, the city has become the focal point of an emerging and hotly contested trend. Local behemoths Verizon and Comcast are fiercely opposed to Philadelphia's Wi-Fi hot zone plan, citing unfair competition and what they claim will be one gigantic waste of taxpayer dollars.

About 1,200 miles west of Philly is Chaska, Minnesota, a town of 18,000, where residents have what Philadelphia wants: high-speed wireless Internet access. "We're a bit unique in that we have been acting as an ISP for five or six years," says Bradley Mayer, IS manager for Chaska. Initially, Mayer offered traditional broadband access only to district schools and local businesses. Over time, he thought about offering the service to residents and also started playing around with wireless. "We knew how to do a low-cost broadband connection to business, so we thought we'd leverage what we knew," Mayer says.

Technology is temporary
Mayer knows the technology will change and create difficulties. "More likely than not, we will have torn down what we have in place right now in three years," he says. The small amount of revenue the service generates will allow the town to upgrade the systems. "It is designed to sustain itself," he says. The town took out a loan to pay for the service, which Mayer plans to pay off. So far, 28 percent of Chaska homes have signed up for the capability, and the Chaska police department have started using the Wi-Fi service.

A lot of the system design was done in-house by Mayer's five-person staff. He turned to two vendors: Tropos Networks (which provides the mesh network hardware) and Pronto Networks (which provides software for managing customers, revenue and services). Though Mayer says he doesn't want to become too reliant on vendors, he is thinking of outsourcing the customer service and help desk duties. "There are companies out there that can do customer support better than we're able to provide right now," he says.

With the tidal wave of furore created by Philadelphia, Mayer knows his timing couldn't have been any better. "Today, if we were going to start this, we would definitely garner more interest," Mayer says.

A tale of two Wi-Fi zones
Chaska's Wi-Fi service is up and running, and Philly's is still over a long way out. Here's how the two communities stack up.




Chaska, Minn.
Philadelphia
Citizens
18,000
1.5 million
Square miles
15
135
Wi-Fi antennas
267
4,000*
Wi-Fi charge per month
US$15.95
$15-$25*
Startup costs
$850,000
$10 million*
Subscribers
2,077 out of approx. 7,500 homes
TBD
Motive for Wi-Fi rollout
Offer low-cost access; make a little money?
Offer low-cost access; keep businesses in town



*Estimates