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Free citywide Wi-Fi still a work in progress

More than a month after a Florida town launched the country's first free citywide Wi-Fi network, officials are working to fix technical glitches and keep expectations in check.
Ashley Austin
Ashley Austin, 19, surfs the Web via a citywide free Wi-Fi network while working on a college paper in St. Cloud, Fla., on Tuesday. She says she hasn't had any problems with it, but others say they're frustrated.Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Joe Lusardi's friends back in New York couldn't believe it when he told them he'd have free Internet access through this city's new Wi-Fi network.

It's free all right, but residents are, to some extent, getting what they pay for.

More than a month after St. Cloud launched what analysts say is the country's first free citywide Wi-Fi network, Lusardi and others in this 28,000-person Orlando suburb are still paying to use their own Internet service providers as dead spots and weak signals keep some residents offline and force engineers to retool the free system.

"Everybody's happy they were going to have it, but I don't know if they're happy right now," said Lusardi, a 66-year-old retired New York City transit worker.

The same troubles with the small town's big Internet project could be lessons for municipalities from Philadelphia to San Francisco considering similar networks.

St. Cloud officials are spending more than $2 million on a network they see as a pioneering model for freeing local families, schools and businesses from monthly Internet bills. It also promises to help the city reduce cell-phone bills and let paramedics in an ambulance talk by voice and video to hospital doctors.

Instead, what they have so far is a work in progress.

"All technology has its hiccups, and sometimes more than hiccups," St. Cloud Mayor Donna Hart said. "I think that it's going to be a major challenge, and it'll probably be a major challenge for some time until the technology is such that it works properly."

Wi-Fi is the same technology behind wireless Internet access in coffee shops, airports and college campuses around the country.

Several cities have Wi-Fi hotspots, but St. Cloud's 15-square-mile network is the first to offer free access citywide, said Seattle-based technology writer Glenn Fleishman, who runs a Web site called Wi-Fi Networking News.

Other cities like Tempe, Ariz., have networks over a larger area (187 square miles), but access isn't free. Planned projects in places like Chicago and Philadelphia would also dwarf St. Cloud's network, but also require a fee for access.

Google Inc. and EarthLink Inc. are teaming up to build a $15 million Wi-Fi network across San Francisco, and their proposal is entering final negotiations. EarthLink's faster offering would cost $20 per month, while Google would provide a slower, free service financed by advertising.

St. Cloud launched the network on a trial basis in May 2004 in a new division of town to help give businesses an incentive to relocate. After further exploring the benefits, officials decided to expand it citywide.

Project supporters say increased efficiency in city government will cover the network's $2.6 million buildout and estimated $400,000 annual operating expense.

For example, phones that use the Wi-Fi network will allow it to cut cell-phone bills for police and city workers. The city can avoid adding 10 more building inspectors because the network will existing employees to enter and access data onsite instead of driving back to the office.

The network also could keep the estimated $450 that St. Cloud households now spend each year on high-speed access in the local economy.

As of last week, nearly 3,500 users had registered for the network, logging 176,189 total hours of use. St. Cloud contracted with Hewlett-Packard Co. to build the project and provide customer support.

"HP is working with the city and its partners to optimize the solution and install additional access points to help improve signal strength in isolated areas of the city," the company said in a statement.

So far, there have been plenty of calls from frustrated residents. Some can see receivers from their homes and still can't sign on — even on the porch. Others have tried to connect countless times.

Still, HP said that there were only 842 help-line calls out of more than 50,000 user sessions in the first 45 days of service.

At first, a desktop computer in Lusardi's house could use the Wi-Fi network with no problem, but his laptop would only work outdoors. Even then it was too slow and unreliable, so he kept his $20 per month Sprint DSL service.

Now the desktop doesn't even work, and he's completely abandoned the idea of dropping his pay service and using the network.

"It's just total frustration," Lusardi said. "I'm going to stay with the DSL and just forget it, because I don't think it's going to work. Very few people are going to use it, and they're going to say it's underutilized and they're going to shut it down."

Lusardi didn't shell out the money for a signal-boosting device St. Cloud recommends for those having trouble connecting — City Hall sells them for $170.

Fleishman said the fact that others share Lusardi's frustration is a crucial technical and public relations problem for the vanguard project. He said residents should understand many won't be able to use the free network without additional equipment to strengthen the signal.

"It's very large and it's very ambitious, so they're going to hit some of these problems before some of the marketing and technology is out there," he said. "Products have to catch up to this new market."

Fleishman said other cities would likely have the same problems — in bigger cities, even larger ones — if they didn't fully inform the public of necessary equipment and network limits.

Former Mayor Glenn Sangiovanni, who spearheaded the project, stressed that kinks were still being worked out, but noted that not everyone was having problems.

"There's a lot of variables, and that's part of it," Sangiovanni said. "It could be the block construction you have, it could be the tin roof you have. There's lots of different things that could be unique to your environment as opposed to my environment.

"We went into this with the expectation that it's really a year plan that we're going to implement," he added. "You don't know what you're going to get into when you take on the whole city because you can't stress test that."

Ashley Austin, a freshman at nearby Florida Christian College, said she likes using the network to do homework on the city's picturesque downtown lakefront. She said it's also the only way to get online if Internet service is down at the wireless telephone store where she works.

"So far I haven't had any problems with the use that I've gotten out of it," she said.

Resident Chuck Cooper, a former city commissioner, bought an antenna, but still gets a shaky connection. Navigating from one site to another still produces errors.

Generally, he says, it's slightly faster than dial-up access. But even critics like him are quick to praise the endeavor in between grumbles over early problems.

"All in all, I guess it's a good idea," Cooper said. "I equate it to cell phones 10 to 15 years ago. You used to have a lot of dropped calls, but now they're substantially better. Hopefully, this will get a little better a lot quicker."