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The Wireless World Widens

For years, I've had free WiFi on my street--courtesy of neighbors I know only as "Default," "Linksys" and "NETGEAR." Home wireless networks unintentionally left open are not too reliable or fast, but they can be a decent backup if your own Internet connection goes down.

(I feel guilty about not returning the favor with my own network and wish there were a simple way to configure it for backup use by my neighbors--limited bandwidth, Web and e-mail use only, no peer-to-peer file sharing. Any ideas?)

But what if you could pay $20 a month for wireless that works everywhere in your city or county? That's the promise of municipal wireless, the subject of today's column, chat and podcast (listen, subscribe, iTunes).

I'm usually a skeptic when I hear promises of "fast, cheap Internet access in our time," but I think muni WiFi, as it's called, makes sense. If it didn't, incumbent telecom carriers like Verizon and AT&T wouldn't have worked so hard to try to kill it. It also has ample precedent: Five years ago, the first commercial WiFi networks were already open for business around the Washington area. These were set up not by any name-brand telecom firms, but by enterprising geeks in the far suburbs who were tired of waiting for cable or DSL to arrive, willing to pay to have a T1 line run to their house and persuasive enough to get their neighbors to chip in for the cost of that T1.

Now, the idea has grown to a city-wide scale. Residents of Philadelphia and New Orleans can already use municipal WiFi (I'd love to hear from folks in Philly and N.O. on how it's working out), and some people around D.C. won't have long to wait. The city of Alexandria has a municipal WiFi network on the way; the company that will run the service, EarthLink, also has a page up with more info. Arlington County, meanwhile, has an EarthLink proposal on the agenda for this Saturday's County Board meeting.

A few details about these EarthLink systems that didn't make the paper:

* It's non-exclusive; another company can offer to set up the same kind of network.

* Other companies can buy access to this network at a wholesale rate and then resell it under their own name (a fairer deal than EarthLink has received from cable and DSL carriers when it's tried to sell its service via their facilities).

* The special receiver most people will need to connect to the nearest transmitter will be pretty cheap--$3.95 a month to rent, or $69.95 to buy.

* EarthLink is talking to Baltimore about setting up a city-wide network there and is interested in doing business with D.C. also.

* EarthLink's 2500 households/square mile formula, which I mentioned at the end of the piece, assumes that about 15 percent of these homes will sign up; it also assumes that governments will purchase service too. (Want to see if your city is dense enough? Try this page on the Census Bureau's Web site.)

I don't usually say this about a not-quite-available technology or service, but I am excited about municipal wireless. This could solve some basic problems with the telecom market as we've known it. I'm also happy with it as a taxpayer--these kinds of networks could save a lot of money for government agencies that no longer have to pay for expensive wireless-data services for their facilities and vehicles.

Lest people think I've OD'd on the happy pills this week, I can't yet say that I'd sign up for such a service were it to become available in my neighborhood. I do a lot of work from home and don't have time to wait for my Internet connection to come back up; I'd want to see how it worked over a few months in the real world. I'd also need to inventory my own bandwidth needs carefully first.

But I'm not exactly the typical customer here, so enough about me. Would you dump your existing broadband service for a package like this? If you still use dial-up, would this persuade you to upgrade? Let me know in the comments.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  April 19, 2007; 9:04 AM ET
Categories:  Telecom  
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I listened to the podcast on this. I have to say, I'm very skeptical that "city-wide Wi-Fi" projects will succeed, especially those that have significant government involvement. As people become more aware of the importance of computer security, they may lean away from unencrypted public networks.

Speaking of the podcast, what was that clicking noise I kept hearing in the background? It sounded like the noise Internet Explorer makes when you click on a link. Please tell Sam Diaz that it was VERY annoying.

Posted by: William | April 19, 2007 10:26 AM | Report abuse

Rob, you asked about how to be abackup link for your neighbors. depending on your router you couldl imit them to just port 80 and 25 through an ACL on the built-in firewall. You probably wouldn't be able to limit the amoun of bandwidth they consume but by using rules and filters limiting what they could do through your connection shouldn't be too big a deal.

Posted by: owendylan | April 19, 2007 10:47 AM | Report abuse

As a multiple computer household with a husband who plays a lot of WoW, I wouldn't be interested. But I know plenty of people who would be. Even though I would probably never use municipal wifi - or rarely anyway - I would be thrilled to see it introduced. Anything that competes with Verizon and the cable companies is okay by me. Eventually someone will have to fight them with half-way decent customer service...

Posted by: Lani | April 19, 2007 11:07 AM | Report abuse

I used New Orleans muni wifi on a business treip last August. It was serviceable, although a bit slower than my DSL at home. The signal, at least in my hotel, ranged from weak-but-workable to medium. It was fine for what I needed.

Posted by: Lara | April 19, 2007 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Hi Rob,

Some other considerations regarding Municipal or County Wide Wi-Fi include:

Government Services - Reduced costs and productivity by incorporating VOIP, Asset Tracking, Building Inspections and other departmental applications.

Public Safety - High Speed connectivity to Officers in the Field, Increased patrol time on the street, ability to transmit both voice & video, remote Monitoring of trouble spots & peripheral locations, real time access to crtitical information to & from the field, first responder communications & coordination, wireless allows for real tiome backup for your officers, access to building blueprints and information in the field, access to lifesaving medical records.

Enhance Education - Reduced cost for school Internet access, universal access allows teachers to put more information on web portals, E-Lesson Plans, 1-1 Initiatives, Special Needs Remote Learning, Cumputing skills are a requirement for new workforce, Computing skills prepare individuals and communities for better employment and wage benefits.

Digital Literacy - provide free or low cost broadband access, computers, and peripherals for low income, disadvantaged households, training.

Community/City Economic Stimulous - recapture dollars leaving the Community to privately owned ISP's.

It is not all about public/visitor reduced cost broadband access to the Internet, even though this seems to be at the forefront.

Posted by: Brad | April 19, 2007 12:06 PM | Report abuse

I was excited when Google put free Wi-fi in here in Mountain View, but it has proven a dud for me. The transmitter they say is outside my apartment complex was mysteriously relocated a block north to sit outside an upscale townhouse community, and now my apartment complex is a dead zone - can't even get a signal on the sidewalk. I suspect that concrete construction of these apartments would limit the signal in any case. I'd be happy to pay something if it worked reliably, but I don't think people will pay if the coverage ends up being this spotty. I don't know anyone here who relies on it as a main ISP.

Posted by: Judith | April 19, 2007 12:29 PM | Report abuse

I live in Alexandria and can't get DSL (well, I can if I pay $600 to have the wiring in my apt. building redone) so I'm stuck with Comcast internet/cable. Depending on the actual speed of the muni wifi service, I would be willing to take it for a spin. I'd even be willing to trade down some in the speed department.

Currently, I pay $140+ for cable, HBO/stars, DVR box and cable from Comcast. If I could get reliable DSL-level wifi and then get DirecTV with the NFL package and HBO, I'd A) probably save money and B) actually get better service and not have to screw with the worst customer service on the planet (Comcast). The possibility of this excites me to no end.

Posted by: Bob | April 19, 2007 3:19 PM | Report abuse

I do too much work from home to dump the reliability of my cable modem, but I'd plunk down $70 and pay a day use fee for the ability to work from a local park on occasion or if my connection is down.

A lot of security issues with communal WiFi could be taken care of by allowing users to set up a VPN to the central server.

As for returning the favor to your neighbors, someone already pointed out how to secure it. You could set up logs to track bandwidth and shut it down if it gets abused. Another thought is to identify it as say "RobsWifi". If your neighbors know its yours they will be a lot less likely to abuse it.

Posted by: Norm | April 19, 2007 4:40 PM | Report abuse

I wouldn't pay for wi-fi as long as I mostly use my Mac Mini with a DSL connection at home. Ditto as long as long as libraries offer free wi-fi around the country.

I'm a longtime Earthlink customer but I wouldn't pay them extra to access wi-fi.

Posted by: GaryG | April 20, 2007 11:16 AM | Report abuse

To answer some questions/concerns raised here:

1) The ongoing extent of government involvement in these networks basically consists of a) not arresting EarthLink's contractors for trespassing when they start bolting hardware to streetlights and b) cashing checks.

2) If you want to encrypt your connection to the wireless network, EarthLink will provide free software for that; you can also use the tools built into Mac OS X or install one of a handful of third-party programs. (Details.)

3) "Brad" made a good point in emphasizing the cost savings of municipal wireless networks--Craig Fifer, the Alexandria e-government manager I talked to for the story, sounded positively geeked out about this aspect. For example, he said using WiFi to track the city's Dash buses could save $50 or $60 per vehicle, per month, since the city won't need to put cellular data cards in every vehicle.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | April 20, 2007 3:39 PM | Report abuse

I would totally sign up for this. Just like cell phones have made land lines less necessary on a day to day basis for most people, muni wi-fi may do the same for in-home DSL. Power users will always prefer to have the cable come to their door, but most normal people that just want to email and browse the web would be better off with muni wi-fi.

And this is why I love this idea. Most people just don't need the high speeds and features that technology firms are pushing. This idea will actually help the silent majority of citizens that want to take advantage of higher connection speeds for basic tasks.

Posted by: JD | April 21, 2007 5:53 PM | Report abuse

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