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Updated: November 28, 2012 6:04AM



As wireless telephone companies and their suppliers meet in Chicago this week to talk about how to serve poor neighborhoods while competing with tech giants Google and Apple, a grass-roots model for high-speed access is popping up — a mobile wireless network shared among friends, teachers, the public and nonprofit groups.

The models vary. Two examples in Chicago are MobileCitizen.org, a non-profit that uses Wimax 4G technology, sells customers — primarily schools and nonprofits — their own portable $99 “hot spot” and offers $120 yearly access, and Solavei, which pays a user $20 a month for every three people the user enrolls in the company’s $49-a-month unlimited voice, text and data plan.

Don Lang, owner and president of millwork manufacturer Wooden Specialties, Inc., in Crystal Lake, earned $1,000 in his first month with Solavei by signing up friends and family for the company’s $49-a-month unlimited voice, text and data plan. The money — $20 a month for every three people the user enrolls — is deposited onto a debit card. Users also may receive a bonus of up to $650 in their first 60 days with Solavei if they sign up 12 people.

No contracts or inventories are required to use the service, which runs on T-Mobile’s high-speed wireless network.

“It has taken the edge off,” said Lang, 50, whose hard-wood millwork company languished last year at 70 percent of its 2005-2006 revenues as the construction industry hit bottom. “We’ve gone out to dinner and done some extra things for our kids.”

The big telecommunications carriers are figuring out how to offer free publicly available access, such as AT&T’s Wi-Fi hotspots in 19 parks in New York, while deciding how to charge customers who are willing to pay for fast access but increasingly irritated by complicated long-term contract commitments, said Berge Ayvazian, chairman of 4G World’s four-day conference, expected to attract up to 4,000 people to the McCormick Place Convention Center.

“When carriers build out networks, they do the affluent areas first,” he said. “It’s about mobile, video and movies.”

“And most of these (major carriers) don’t have the money to build out Wi-Fi hot spots alongside their 4G fixed networks,” Ayvazian said.

Though more Chicagoans are gaining access to the Internet, cost still matters and Wi-Fi hot spots limit people’s abilities to do vital tasks such as fill out job applications and research job opportunities, according to the latest research by University of Illinois researcher Karen Mossberger.

The fall 2011 survey of more than 3,000 Chicagoans revealed that 79 percent used the Internet somewhere, including at libraries and places outside their homes, up from 75 percent in the last survey in summer 2008. Of those surveyed, 67 percent had broadband connections at home, up from 61 percent four years ago.

Neighborhoods with the lowest rates of broadband adoption at home were East Garfield Park and Hermosa, at 36 percent each, and Greater Grand Crossing and South Lawndale, with 44 percent each. That compares with 94 percent in-home access in North Center and 93 percent in Lincoln Park, Lakeview and the South Loop.

Mossberger said smartphone-only Internet users are a small group — about 4 percent of Chicagoans last year — but they tend to be African-American, Latino, lower-income, less educated and younger than those who use broadband Internet access at home on a computer.

Though smartphones offer Internet access, it’s difficult to fill out job applications or do extensive online research on the small-screen devices, Mossberger said.

One of the bigger barriers to people getting broadband access at home is cost, with 52 percent of those surveyed saying the monthly Internet bill was too high for them.

“Broadband at home still matters for individual opportunity and the ability to participate in society online, even with alternatives like smartphones or public access,” Mossberger said.

The telecom companies hope for part of the answer from the federal government, which plans to open more broadband pipes by auctioning TV airwave spectrum.

Mobile broadband traffic is forecast to surge more than thirty times by 2015, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the U.S. agency that regulates broadcasting spectrum.

Most TV broadcasters want to keep their airwaves, but the FCC proposes auctioning a portion of the spectrum to be used for wireless broadband networks. The auctions are expected to generate $15 billion in proceeds, of which $7 billion would be set aside for a nationwide emergency communications network for police and firefighters.

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