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Municipal Wi-Fi thrives – on a small scale

Big-city wireless Internet plans took a hit this summer, but places like Owensboro, Ky., and Rio Rancho, N.M., put networks in place.

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"The really amazing thing about St. Cloud is that more than two-thirds of households have signed up," says Sascha Meinrath, research director for the Wireless Future Program at the New America Foundation in Washington. "National cable and DSL companies aim for ... the 15 to 20 percent realm."

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For now at least, St. Cloud is the goal for wireless plans – not the norm. Of the 415 American cities and counties operating or deploying wireless systems, very few can pull off a free network, says Ms. Vos. Initially, some communities considered an ad-supported network, but that approach has been largely abandoned because it hasn't proved viable. Instead, communities are looking to partner with a company that will build the network and run a subscription service off the Wi-Fi hubs.

This is partly why Earthlink ran into trouble. In the early days of these deals, cities got off easy, says Glenn Fleishman, a journalist who specializes in the wireless industry.

"San Francisco and some other cities thought they could get something for free," he says. "They thought they could get the network and not pay for it.... They only needed to share some streetlights."

But with Earthlink bearing the brunt, the business model cracked. The networks cost far more than expected, and the investments took far longer to mature.

Small communities, such as Brookline, Mass. (population 57,000), knew that Internet providers would be less willing to take a gamble on cities lacking instant name recognition, says Mr. Fleishman.

So Brookline signed on with a small IT firm, Galaxy Internet Service, based in neighboring Newton, Mass. The new network caters to the five principles that Fleishman says are the most successful:

Homeowners: Most municipal plans offer residents a competitive choice against what Vos calls the "duopoly of cable and DSL." By offering a third way, towns can keep Internet costs down and provide more access for lower-income residents.

Public safety: In January, Cocoa Beach, Fla., (population 12,000) finished outfitting its police cars with wireless computers connected to real-time video, dispatch software, and state and federal crime databases. Ocean City, N.J. (population 15,000), plans to roll out wireless bracelets, which would employ the Wi-Fi hubs to track young children on the boardwalk.

Businesses: Citywide Wi-Fi is a boon to small businesses and helps draw new companies to the area. Similarly, wireless hookups spread that coffee-shop phenomenon of surfing the Net while nibbling on snacks to every store downtown.

Mobile users: With the popularity of Wi-Fi devices, residents are increasingly likely to expect Internet access on the go.

Municipal workers: Most city Wi-Fi deals now require that the local government sign on as an "anchor tenant" to the network. This ensures the million-dollar projects will at least have some subscribers and can save city departments countless man-hours. For instance, Corpus Christi, Texas, uses its network to automate home meter readings instead of dispatching workers to individual homes.

But, of course, not all small cities have found wireless success. Almost a year after launching its $2 million Wi-Fi system, Lompoc, Calif., (population 40,000) has attracted fewer than 500 registered users.

"Is Wi-Fi doomed? No," says Craig Settles, a wireless consultant. "The concept that you can get wireless for free ... is dead. Cities will have to find the right mixture for them and bring something to the table in order to get it."

How to find a Wi-Fi hot spot near you

Coffee shops are often a good bet, but countless other businesses and towns also offer wireless Internet – some for free, some for a daily or monthly fee. To locate hubs in your area, check some of the many online wireless directories. Here are three websites to get you started:

anchorfree.com – Focusing on free Wi-Fi hot spots, the website's search engine lists more than 12,000 wireless hubs in the United States alone. The advertising company that runs the directory also offers a free iPod application that lets you take the list on the go.

jiwire.com – The site boasts a massive catalog of 150,000 international Wi-Fi zones. JiWire, another ad company, provides the list on its website as a cellphone program or as an extension for an Internet browser.

rv.net – Even campgrounds offer Wi-Fi nowadays. If you need to check e-mail while on the road, or appease your kids during a long trip, check out RV.net's 31-page directory of parks with wireless internet at: www.rv.net/campgrounds/cgphonenetaccess.pdf

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