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Paris: City Of Wireless

The French capital may soon be among the first cities to offer Internet access all across town

PARIS (AP) -- Next time you're in the French capital, keep an eye out for the corporate executive in his beloved cafe, smoke curling from his cigarette, steam wafting from his espresso. And his laptop computer connected to corporate headquarters.

The perfect marriage: cafe society and wireless Internet.

Paris could soon be among the first cities to offer Internet all across town, allowing E-mailing and Web surfing from the Left Bank to La Defence.

Two technology firms and the agency that runs Paris' subway have launched a test run that, if successful, could lead to Paris becoming one massive "hot spot."

In the trial, a dozen antennas were erected last month outside Metro stations lining a major north-south bus route, allowing anyone nearby to go online with a computer equipped to receive the signals.

Most newly manufactured laptop computers come equipped with built-in WiFi, or wireless fidelity. The standard allows users to log on to the Internet from within 300 feet or so of a hot spot, an antenna-equipped access point. Older laptops can be upgraded for less than $100.

In a technology blitz some have compared to the rise of the Internet, tens of thousands of hot spots have been established around the world--in airports, cafes, McDonald's restaurants, hotels, university campuses and other locations.

Trains and planes are also being equipped, and Verizon Corp. announced a plan Tuesday to pepper New York City with wireless access points for its Internet subscribers, using the wiring from its pay phone network.

Such urban access would by no means be seamless, given current technological limitations. Nevertheless, a single, continuous network is the eventual goal of the Paris project.

Paris may seen an odd entrant into the race to extend WiFi, or "weefee", as it is pronounced in French, as it lags behind U.S. and many other European cities in wireless Internet adoption.

That's certainly not dimming its purveyors' enthusiasm.

"More than 1,000 people have subscribed, the numbers are growing extremely fast, people are definitely excited," said Jean-Paul Figer, chief technology officer at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, a partner in the project.

He admits that one obstacle to a seamless network is the current limited range of WiFi antennas.

"We are working to increase the range so we can get full coverage," Figer said.

Access is free in the Paris experiment until June 30, with users obliged to first sign up on the Internet.

Providers of Internet service who have signed up for the project have not yet set fees or indicated how much they might charge.

Figer said competition between up to a dozen providers, including France's Bouygues Telecom and Club Internet, would probably help push fees down.

Using a separate, fee-based hot spot in Paris' Gare du Nord, the terminal for high-speed trains to London and Brussels, currently costs $11.50 an hour--discouragingly expensive--particularly given that residential unlimited broadband access costs about $35 a month in the city.

Paris-wide coverage--for an area inhabited by 2.2 million people--would dramatically change how many businesses operate.

"The fact that companies can be in touch with their employees in the field at virtually no extra cost across Paris is a major asset," Figer said, citing delivery trucks or real estate agents as examples.

Figer said he was confident a decision to install antennas--which use the same frequency as most cordless telephones--outside all of Paris' nearly 400 subway stations will be made by the end of the year.

The Internet providers would pay the partnership that would build the system, which includes Cap Gemini; California-based Cisco Systems, which is supplying the antennas and access points; and the RATP, the Paris Metro operator.

In the project's favor, much of the infrastructure is already in place - the antennas can be linked through an existing fiber-optics network in the subway tunnels, significantly reducing installation costs, which Figer estimated at less than $11.5 million. Another asset is that the distance between Metro stops is relatively small.

But there could stumbling block that are not technological, but bureaucratic.

"We have a lot of issues in Paris because we have to get approval from so many departments and organizations," including City Hall and the Paris heritage council, Figer said.

Many of Paris' Metro stations are listed monuments.

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