- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2005

Three local governments are expanding city services to include wireless Internet, or “wi-fi,” in outdoor public areas.

A wi-fi “hot spot” was turned on in Alexandria last week along an eight-block stretch of the city’s King Street corridor. Arlington and Montgomery counties also have wi-fi plans in the works.

Users of laptop computers or personal digital assistants with wi-fi capability can connect to the Internet when they are in the hot spot. Most new laptops come with the 802.11 devices needed to access wi-fi; older models can be easily upgraded with a trip to an electronics store.

Commercial Internet providers say they don’t feel threatened by the free access. Alexandria’s wi-fi service, the first by a local government in the area, was designed to avoid residential areas and doesn’t provide the secure connections recommended when using credit cards to pay bills or shop online.

“What we see is clearly consumer demand for broadband access and broadband products,” said Jim Gordon, vice president of communications for the Atlantic region at Comcast Corp., which provides Internet access in the Washington area.

Free wi-fi, whether it is provided by a local government or by coffee shops, hotels or restaurants, is just another competitor in a crowded field, said Harry Mitchell, spokesman for Verizon Communications, another area Internet access provider.

“We compete every day for broadband — with cable, wi-fi, wireless broadband providers. It’s obviously a very competitive business right now,” Mr. Mitchell said.

Alexandria officials hope that offering free Internet access will lure tourists and residents to the city’s outdoor restaurants while projecting an image of a tech-savvy town. It will also serve as a test for using wi-fi for municipal needs, such as paying fees or registering for city services, said Mark Jinks, assistant city manager.

Alexandria spent $14,000 to provide the infrastructure for its wi-fi service.

MCI provides the Internet signal, which may reach into portions of surrounding restaurants or homes but is not intended to compete with commercial wireless, Mr. Jinks said.

The access is not secure, meaning it may be safe enough to surf the Web for fun or to send e-mail but it is not safe enough to buy products or pay bills because credit card and other information is not protected. Also, connections may fade in and out in buildings, he said.

“The signal may leak into the first floor of a restaurant, but it’s not intended to be a secure linkfor constant business or residential use,” Mr. Jinks said. “With existing options to get broadband, we feel we don’t need to compete with the private sector.”

It’s too early to tell how many people have logged on, and the city has no idea how many people will use it, Mr. Jinks said. Alexandria will decide whether to continue to provide the service after the one-year pilot program ends next August.

Other counties plan to offer wi-fi access soon.

Montgomery County plans to turn on wi-fi access in its Silver Spring hot spot by next week, according to spokeswoman Bonnie Ayers. The downtown hot spot extends from Colesville Road to Fenten Street to Wayne Avenue to Ramsey Avenue.

Arlington County’s wi-fi program is still in its early stages but might be active by the fall, according to Jack Belcher, chief information officer for the county.

Unlike Alexandria, Arlington hopes to pick a company to provide the service for free or at low cost and leave the government out of the plan. Arlington is collecting proposals from commercial wireless Internet providers to install wi-fi in 15 public areas.

“We don’t want to be in a business of doing something the private sector can do better,” Mr. Belcher said.

Mr. Belcher said Arlington’s large number of computer-literate young people makes the county an ideal wi-fi location. One of the county’s goals is to conduct government services — such as paying taxes or utility bills — via wireless, he said.

The Washington area’s first outdoor hot spot was activated last month.

The DuPont Wireless project, a collaboration of businesses that provide free access in DuPont Circle, recorded about 160 visitors the first week of August, according to Nick Vossburg, the president of TechAssist Inc., a District technology consulting company that manages the project.

“We provide the city with a valuable service. … In return, we knew it would be a good way to get out in the community and expand the coverage of [Tech Assist],” Mr. Vossburg said.

Wi-fi is already standard in public libraries in most area cities and counties.

Wi-fi, whether sponsored by local governments or a public-private sponsorship, can now be found all over the country, from Spokane, Wash., to Milwaukee to Philadelphia, which has plans for a public-private citywide network that residents will be able to use for a fee.

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