AT&T, the largest US telecoms group, said on Wednesday it would for the first time build a large-scale municipal WiFi network, providing free wireless broadband internet access in Illinois.

The company’s project in the city of Springfield could signal an important shift in the attitude of telecoms and cable network operators towards the rash of municipal WiFi roll-outs across the US.

A number of large cities, including Philadelphia and San Francisco, and many smaller communities are in the process of building municipal WiFi networks in spite of early opposition from both cable and telecoms operators.

Incumbent telecoms operators, who are investing heavily in both 3G wireless and fibre-optic based video networks, have viewed municipal WiFi, with its capacity to carry both voice and data traffic, as a potential threat.

However, local legislators have pushed ahead with their municipal WiFi projects, awarding them to a host of new rivals including Earthlink, the internet access provider; Google, the internet search giant; and Tropos, a municipal WiFi technology specialist. As a result US telecoms groups have modified their stance.

AT&T, which already operates more than 34,000 small-scale WiFi “hotspots” in more than 80 countries, said it saw municipal WiFi projects as an opportunity to complement their existing services, rather than a threat.

“We see this as a growth opportunity,” said Eric Shepcaro, AT&T’s senior vice-president of business development.

The carrier, which will use a combination of wireless networking technologies to cover the 50 sq mile Springfield area, emphasised that it viewed the project as a business opportunity and expected it to be profitable.

The network, backed by Springfield mayor Timothy Davlin, would be built and maintained by AT&T, with no taxpayer dollars involved in its development.

In addition to offering WiFi internet access to the 100,000 homes and businesses in Springfield, the city plans to use the network for municipal data traffic and for public safety communications.

Mr Shepcaro said AT&T planned to offer users a range of access plans including a basic free service supported by advertising revenues.

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