Google Inc. on Wednesday plans to offer free, high-speed Internet access to everyone in its Silicon Valley home town — a hospitable gesture that the online search leader hopes to see spread to other parts of the country.
The new wireless, or "Wi-Fi," network, is believed to establish Mountain View, Calif., as the largest U.S. city with totally free Internet access available throughout the entire community, according to both Google and city officials.
St. Cloud, Fla., a suburb of Orlando with a population of about 28,000, had claimed that mantle earlier this year after it launched a free Wi-Fi network.
About 72,000 people reside in Mountain View, an 11.5-square-mile city located about 35 miles south of San Francisco. As the home to major companies like Google and VeriSign Inc., Mountain View's daytime population can swell above 100,000.
"We aren't concerned about being able to handle the load," said Chris Sacca, a Google executive who oversaw the Mountain View project. "We think we have built a pretty cool, robust network."
Similar Wi-Fi networks are under development in many other cities, including Philadelphia and Chicago, but most of those envision charging for Internet access.
Small pockets of free Wi-Fi access — often called "hot spots" — have become increasingly common throughout the United States, often cropping up in downtown districts or by coffee shops and fast-foot restaurants hoping to lure in customers.
Google's community-wide network has had Mountain View buzzing in anticipation, said City Manager Kevin Duggan.
"There's a lot of excitement," he said. "It's something we could have never anticipated a few years ago when we were just excited to be able to pay for dial-up access to the Internet. Now our entire town is a hot spot."
Google invested about $1 million to build the Mountain View network and expects to have to spend far less than that each year to keep it running. The financial commitment represents a pittance for Google, which has nearly $10 billion in cash.
Powered by 380 radio antennae, the Mountain View network is supposed to surf the Web at speeds comparable to the Internet connections delivered by digital subscriber, or DSL lines. It will be slightly slower than a high-speed cable connection.
Still, Google believes the free service will be fast enough to prompt some Mountain View residents to stop paying DSL and cable providers for Internet access. People who take that step will probably want to spend $30 to $170 for a Wi-Fi modem to improve the connection to Google's free service, Sacca said.
Web surfers using the Google service will have to log on, but once they're connected they will be able to sign off without losing access, Sacca said. The network is "very naive," so it won't track people's online activities when they aren't on a Google site, Sacca said.
Like many Internet companies, Google has an incentive to ensure people have easy and cheap access to the Internet because its profits depend on Web surfers navigating through waves of online ads.
Toward that end, Google last year decided to help develop free Wi-Fi networks in Mountain View, the company's home since 1999, and San Francisco, where many of its employees live. Google doesn't expect to undertake similar projects elsewhere, partly because so many other companies are angling to build Wi-Fi networks in hundreds of other cities, Sacca said.
In contrast to the Mountain View network, Google decided to team up with another company, EarthLink Inc., to build San Francisco's Wi-Fi network. The San Francisco plan envisions EarthLink charging roughly $20 per month to surf at the top available speed while Google will offer a free service that transmits data at a much slower rate.
Negotiations on the San Francisco network still haven't been completed, making it unlikely it will be switched on until next year.