Internet Service Providers Warily Eye Hub WiFi Plan

By Robert Weisman, Globe Staff

Advocates of a citywide wireless data network in Boston and the companies that currently sell Internet access in the city are eyeing each other warily as a new Boston WiFi Task Force opens its campaign to turn the entire city into a wireless hot spot.

Representatives of Comcast Corp., Verizon Communications Inc., and RCN Corp., which provide high-speed Internet connections to thousands of Boston households via cable modems or digital subscriber lines, said they are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the task force unveiled by Mayor Thomas M. Menino on Wednesday.

But the effort clearly is raising anxiety at the Internet service providers, which have watched with alarm as other cities and towns across the nation have launched universal wireless Internet initiatives. "We would certainly see any new entrant into the broadband market as competition," affirmed Cliff Lee, a spokesman for Verizon.

Verizon supported a Pennsylvania bill prohibiting municipalities from building WiFi networks, but it ultimately struck an accord exempting Philadelphia. Nationwide, cities and towns from San Francisco to Cambridge to Tempe, Ariz., are either working on or have launched WiFi networks. WiFi, short for wireless fidelity, allows laptop computers and other devices to connect to the Net at high speeds via radio waves.

Task force members, meanwhile, have begun fielding inquiries from Internet service providers and other vendors that want to learn more and potentially participate in the initiative. The panel is developing a process to solicit ideas and feedback from vendors.

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