The idea of free Internet for all Americans looks good on screen, but the concept also raises crucial questions. And for the past few years, as cities across the country jumped on the broadband wagon, many government IT leaders kept getting stuck on the first and most important one: How?

Since 2005, various U.S. cities from Philadelphia to Houston have announced plans for Wi-Fi networks only to turn around and cancel them later because of lack of funding or subscription support. Many local governments refused to be anchor tenants because they didn't want to commit to buying a specified volume of service.

Not all municipal Wi-Fi networks fell flat. Some cities have succeeded in delivering broadband service to the public. For instance, first responders in New York can access files through the $500 million high-speed New York City Wireless Network (NYCWiN), built and operated for the next five years by Northrop Grumman Corp. Other areas such as Bristol, Va. and Corpus Christi, Texas, have also developed thriving models of a public network.

These success stories prove that municipal Wi-Fi can indeed work, but that doesn't mean there's only one way to solve the problem of the digital divide. In the past few months, two major cities have illustrated two very different ways in which a city can make that big connection.

On one side, there's Philadelphia, where IT officials announced in December 2009 that they would build the network themselves, more than a year after the EarthLink deal fell through. After their private model flopped, IT officials decided a public Wi-Fi neftwork would better serve the city by enhancing mobile applications and access for building inspectors, code enforcers and emergency responders.

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Russell Nichols  |  Staff Writer