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Citywide WiFi fails to emerge in Naperville, Aurora
By Melissa Jenco | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 1/23/2008 12:36 AM

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Plans to provide free wireless Internet service throughout Naperville and Aurora have gone offline, at least temporarily, officials say.

California-based MetroFi is backing out of a deal to extend the service beyond existing areas, leaving the cities to explore other options.

"I'm very disappointed for myself and residents that we were not able to get the free business model to work," said Ted Beck, chief technology officer for Aurora. "We completely appreciate the patience residents have shown along the way."

MetroFi provides free wireless service to about 20 percent of Aurora, select areas along Route 59 and in downtown Naperville.

The original 2006 agreement called for the company to offer the service throughout both cities. MetroFi said it would generate money by selling banner ads to local businesses and offering premium ad-free service to paying customers.

Both cities say the company now wants to charge them to complete the network, which would cost Naperville roughly $3.7 million and Aurora $3.5 million.

"When we first sat down with MetroFi, we were excited to be able to offer additional service to residents and it seemed like a great opportunity because we were promised it was at no cost," said Nadja Lalvani, Naperville community relations manager. "We're disappointed they changed their business model in the middle of our contract."

MetroFi officials did not return a call seeking comment.

The cities now plan to jointly look at other providers to see what options are available.

If a citywide plan isn't feasible, Lalvani said there's also the possibility of purchasing the existing system and paying a monthly maintenance fee to continue providing free service downtown.

Beck said he feels it's important to continue to provide free wireless Internet to residents so the city can bridge the "digital divide."

"There is an economic base that cannot afford a broadband alternative so we still believe it is important to provide a free alternative so those people remain competitive in today's work and education environment," he said.

MetroFi has agreed to maintain the current network while the cities decide how they will proceed.