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Free Wi-Fi across Los Angeles? City leaders make a new push

Angelenos may no longer have to squat at cafes for free wireless Internet.

On Tuesday, the L.A. City Council approved a request for proposals to build a citywide Wi-Fi network in an effort to stimulate economic growth and "bridge the digital divide."

The exact cost of the effort and the type of Internet service provided will depend on the proposals. 

Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who spearheaded the idea, said providing basic Wi-Fi services could cost from $60 million to $100 million. A much faster Internet access system, which would involve installing fiber-optic cables in homes and businesses, could cost up to $5 billion, according to the city's Information and Technology Agency.

Dozens of cities across the country provide basic Wi-Fi service, but only a few provide fiber-optic Internet. They include Kansas City and Austin, which made deals with Google to connect fiber cables to every residence. Basic Internet usage there is free, but residents can pay extra for faster connections and television service.

Cities have used different funding formulas, with Wi-Fi providers in some cases providing discounts in some cases in exchange for permission to advertise.

Council members say expanding access to the Internet would allow those who can't afford to pay for Internet access to better compete. They say it would also augment a $1-billion plan at Los Angeles Unified School District to provide 650,000 iPads to teachers and students. An estimated 30% of student households are without broadband access.

Nationwide, an estimated 85% of Americans use the Internet, and 70% of American adults have a high-speed broadband connection at home.

The city last tried to implement citywide wireless access in 2007, but dropped the plan two years later after officials concluded it would be too expensive.

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Twitter: @katelinthicum

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