Holy Toledo! A surprising leader in wireless access.
| TOLEDO, OHIO
Just west of downtown, past shuttered storefronts and rows of tidy brick homes that bespeak a brighter past, Eddie Kanon has brought a slice of Silicon Valley to the rust belt.
Simply by connecting an antenna to his high-speed Internet connection, he has allowed all the laptop-toting customers in his diner to surf the Web. And he is just one of a groundswell of business-owners and citizens here who are broadcasting wireless Internet to anyone who wants it - sometimes for a charge, sometimes not - making Toledo America's fifth most "unwired" city, above the likes of Denver and Boston, according to a survey by Intel.
In any public library, at the airport, and even at the minor-league ballpark, for instance, Toledoans can browse their favorite blogs, wire-free.
It is a curious distinction for a city still struggling to become more than a memorial to America's vanishing industrial heartland.
Yet experts suggest that Toledo's ascendance is but one part of a broader revolution that could bridge the "digital divide." Since the dawn of wireless Internet, futurists have dreamed of the day that the technology would spread Web access to people and places left behind - from inner cities to the remotest hinterland.
Today, "things are starting to tip," says Paul Butcher of Intel, a top chipmaker.
It is evident in places like Toledo - and in Mr. Kanon's restaurant, called Maxwell's Brew. On a weekday afternoon, a clutch of students from nearby University of Toledo hunch over their tables, their plates pushed aside and their fingers tapping madly on keyboards.
Chris Graver says he visits Maxwell's two or three times a week, and though the fare is good, the wireless Internet "is pretty much the main reason I come."
It helps being so close to the university. When Kanon first offered wireless Internet - for a small connection fee - his peak-hour customer traffic increased 9 percent. When he dropped the fee and offered it for free, business picked up even more.
"Now, I get 150 people a day surfing the Web," he says.
Yet wireless networks have spread far beyond this campus community. In a downtown neighborhood of aging warehouses and boarded-up boutique shops, Wesley's Bar & Grill offers wireless amid the fried bologna sandwiches and plastic tablecloths. Overlooking right field of the minor league Toledo Mud Hens baseball stadium, Fricker's restaurant has wireless Internet to "stand out from the other restaurants," says manager John Nowowiejski.
In total, there are 111 hotels, cafes, libraries, and restaurants offering public access to wireless Internet in the Toledo metro area, according to the Intel survey, released several months ago. The findings - and Toledo's No. 5 ranking - were so surprising that the statisticians rechecked the results, says Bert Sperling of BestPlaces, who conducted the survey.
Yet Toledo was one of several midsize cities to place in the top half of the 100-city survey, and Mr. Sperling notes that they have shown a unique appreciation for the technology: Nationwide, 15 percent of hotspots are free; in midsize cities, that jumps to 30 percent.
Still, it is the larger cities that are beginning to embrace bold plans to offer wireless Internet to all their residents.
Philadelphia and San Francisco are already planning citywide public wireless networks. And a private developer recently spent $5 million to cover 700 square miles of Oregon's desolate eastern outback with wireless access.
Though the landscapes are radically different, the goal is the same: to ensure that those frequently ignored by Internet providers - the poor and the remote - have access to high-speed Internet.
Moreover, setting up extensive wireless networks - or "clouds" - to cover a city could allow city officials such as building inspectors or social caseworkers to create mobile offices. In fact, Toledo has already established a private citywide wireless network - separate from the public ones charted by Intel - open only to police and fire officials.
When the project is finished, "all the resources available to an officer sitting at his desk will be available in the squad car - maps, phone numbers, mug shots" says Lt. David Holt of the Toledo Police Department.
Toledo's experience, however, shows the difficulties that lie ahead. Its secure system for police and fire officials has often been disrupted by other wireless signals. "When [a certain TV station] does a broadcast, their truck blasts us out of the water," says Lieutenant Holt.
Moreover, businesses offering public access have in some cases been underwhelmed by the response. Brewed Awakenings, for one, stopped offering it altogether. Yet Sperling of BestPlaces sees a clear trendline, and he expects wireless to become as ubiquitous as mobile phones. "After the technology reaches a certain point, it starts becoming mainstream."