A woman sits at a table outside Weaver Street Market in Carrboro, her purse slung over the back of her chair, her laptop open. The photo, in a newspaper ad for Nextel’s cellular broadband Internet service, reads: “Like many working parents, I spend a lot of time running errands, shuttling kids around and sitting in waiting rooms.” Wireless Internet allows her to “use this downtime” to work on marketing presentations from anywhere in Raleigh, Durham or Chapel Hill, which keeps her from spending unnecessary time in the office.

But there’s one thing the ad doesn’t tell you: She could be sitting in that same spot, getting wireless Internet access for free.

Carrboro offers free public access to the Web in and near the town center, making Weaver Street’s inviting green lawn one of the few places in the Triangle where anyone with a Wi-Fi card in her computer can get online.

The town is in the vanguard of a movement to provide Internet access not as a luxury but as a public utility, administering its own free access points with the help of community-minded businesses and residents who contribute equipment and extra bandwidth on their own networks.

“Technology is an infrastructure like any other,” says Carrboro Mayor Mike Nelson, “and local governments should view it that way. Just as we provide the community with sidewalks, roads, streetlights, we have to think of technology as an infrastructure we provide as well.”

Next door in Chapel Hill, city leaders are talking about creating a similar system to link up the Franklin Street area, ideally creating a seamless connection with Carrboro’s existing system. In Raleigh and Durham, small areas of downtown have been hooked up with free wireless Internet through an arrangement with a local company, as an experiment to see whether demand for the service will whet the appetites of those who lunch downtown. Cary is considering public wireless as part of its comprehensive economic development plan. The small but rapidly growing community of Holly Springs already has a wireless Internet system in place for town operations and hopes to extend it soon for public use to attract the first restaurants and coffeeshops to its downtown.

As society becomes more and more dependent on the Internet, a grassroots movement has emerged across the nation that is clamoring for Internet access to be offered not as a high-priced luxury but as a free or low-cost public utility. Access is already in place in more than 50 cities across the country. Visionary leaders and educators see the possibility of free, publicly provided wireless Internet access–municipal Wi-Fi in geek lingo–as an opportunity to fight poverty, close the achievement gap, expand citizen access to government and use the virtual community to strengthen neighborhoods.

But telecom companies are fighting back, saying governments shouldn’t compete with private enterprise, especially when it comes to new technology. In state after state, they’re pushing for legislation that would nip the trend in the bud.

Here in the Triangle, the trend is just beginning to emerge–and not a moment too soon. With a national battle over broadband brewing, now is the time for the communities of our sprawling, pastoral, high-tech region to link up and establish the terms for wireless Internet access in the public interest–it should be free.

Gigi Sohn, president of the Washington-based advocacy group Public Knowledge, urges towns and cities to look seriously at putting in their own free wireless Internet systems. “It’s an inexpensive way to improve the economic, civic and cultural way of life of your citizens. You could hardly find a better bang for the taxpayer dollars than this. To the extent that it gets folks who might not be online online, to the extent that it gets people downtown getting food and shopping for other things, that’s a benefit to the city. It’s very little investment for very large reward.”

Building inspectors in Holly Springs already use the town’s internal wireless network to log into their databases from job sites. Cops in some cities download mug shots from the squad car; delivery services use it to communicate with drivers. And cities with free or low-cost wireless services are drawing companies to set up shop. WindChannel Communications, a private company based in Raleigh, promotes its service to cities that want to make their downtowns come alive. Jim Crawford, vice president of business development for the company, says, “In order to drive the ‘Creative Class’ to downtowns, we need to make these information infrastructure investments.”

There are political implications, too, says Will Raymond, a Chapel Hill resident advocating for a free public wireless Internet system similar to Carrboro’s. “I love being connected, but I also see it as an enabler for more transparency,” he says, “what I call open source government.”

He regularly covers town council meetings in real time for the local Web log orangepolitics.org, thanks to wireless Internet access in the council chamber. He envisions a mesh dense enough to reach every neighborhood. “To me, it’s a democratizing kind of technology,” Raymond says. Just as the Internet itself changed the way we access information–and gave us access to more of it–he believes the Wi-Fi trend has brought another paradigm shift. Cheap as cheesesteaks Soon, Wi-Fi signals will blanket the city of Philadelphia via access points on 4,000 utility poles. The city-wide mesh will provide continuous access throughout all 135 square miles. City officials estimate it will cost $10 million to roll out and $1.5 million annually to maintain free or low-cost access for all 1.5 million citizens–that’s right, $1 a head.

Philly is the nation’s most intensely watched municipal wireless program. Its ambitious goals and its public fight against the big telecom companies underscore the stakes for public wireless Internet all over the country.

Most publicly provided Internet access has come about in places where commercial Internet service providers won’t bother to tread. There, however, it was a matter of money. A study done by the city showed that 40 percent of Philadelphians did not have Internet access even though the entire city was wired for broadband. City leaders say that’s because people couldn’t afford the $30 to $60 monthly fees. The city’s subscription rates will be half that.

Serving the economically disadvantaged has been a major goal of the city’s plan. City leaders were inspired by a wireless broadband program offered by the People’s Emergency Center and documented in a case study by the private consulting firm Civitium. In 2002, the homeless shelter launched a Wi-Fi network from its own T-1 line and offered subscriptions for $5 a month to about 100 community residents in a five-block area. It then offered computer training programs and refurbished used computers with wireless cards for $120.

Kids soaked up information about wireless networking and went on to learn everything from computer repair to Flash animation. Other residents used the Internet to complete education and learn basic life skills, moving on to better jobs. Many hated to leave the area because it meant loss of the Internet, but the study showed that those who did move out made Internet service a priority in their household budgets. PEC’s president called the program “a silver bullet for poverty.”

When Philadelphia launched its wireless program, Comcast and Verizon, the city’s broadband provider, ramped up pressure on the Pennsylvania General Assembly to include in new telecom legislation a provision that requires cities to give the main local phone company veto power over any future municipal broadband project–effectively making them illegal. After tense negotiations, Philly was exempted from the law.

But the telecom giants are still fighting Philly. A recent New York Times article quotes Adam Theirer, director of telecommunications studies at the Cato Institute, saying of muni wireless projects: “This is a growing trend, but an ominous and disturbing one. The last thing I’d want to see is broadband turned into a lazy public utility.” Theirer authored a study just released by the libertarian think tank that criticizes Philadelphia’s plan. What the Times piece doesn’t mention is that Cato’s corporate sponsors include Comcast and Verizon. The public advocacy group Media Channel sent out a statement pointing that out.

BellSouth and Qwest Communications have also successfully pushed for restrictions on municipal broadband service in Louisiana and Utah. Similar campaigns have gone on in Kansas, Ohio, Texas, Indiana and Iowa. Even in North Carolina, the concept of publicly provided Internet access has been challenged in court.

Sohn says the Philadelphia controversy demonstrates the huge demand for muni Wi-Fi service, and the high stakes of the debate. “The uproar was enormous,” she says of public response to the industry’s legislative offensive, “and as you can tell, there is a burgeoning grassroots movement that wants this.” Consumers don’t care whether municipalities provide their wireless service, or whether private companies do. But they do care about access and about price. “It’ll only come down if there’s competition.”

The claim that local governments aren’t in a position to keep up with ever-changing technology, equipment upkeep and customer service does ring true. But the price of broadband access–not to mention phone service and cable–is grossly inflated, say muni wireless supporters. A little competition is just what the consumer needs.

“Do I necessarily think that cities and counties are the best people to run these networks? I don’t know,” Sohn says. “Experienced telecommunications and cable companies are probably better.” But profit-driven companies aren’t interested in doing anything that won’t make them lots of money, she says. The trend toward publicly provided Internet service started in towns and cities that couldn’t get access to the Internet because private companies didn’t think it was cost-effective to lay cable there, Sohn says. “We’ve seen through years and years of experience that those companies are not willing to deploy those networks unless a gun in held to their heads.”

The increasing necessity of Internet access has been a powerful argument for those who think it, like water service, is just too important to leave to the market. But wireless technologies still make a lot of money. According to a 2005 Telecommunications Industry Association report, total U.S. spending on wireless communications services (including phones and pagers) is expected to reach $113.1 billion this year, up 11 percent from 2004. But if people began to expect wireless Internet as a free or inexpensive utility, the balance of power could tip away from the telecom monopolies toward the public. ‘War driving’ in Raleigh Driving along Glenwood Avenue, you can find out a lot about people and their Internet connections. Will Raymond watches the screen of his laptop as it picks up one wireless network after another with a “ding!” There are linksys networks–the out-of-the-box default name–and hidden networks, and some with cute names like darthmom and junkmonkey. Some are password encrypted; some are wide open. Good thing he’s not trying to access any of them–that’s considered by some people to be illegal. He’s just curious: Who’s out there? How many signals can he pick up between Franklin Street in Chapel Hill and Moore Square in Raleigh?

The last time Raymond did this, he was visiting his brother in Austin, a famously high-tech city, and decided to flip open his laptop while riding in the car. He was amazed to log more than 250 signals in a short trip along the Interstate. “Austin’s a great example of what’s going on with Wi-Fi,” he says.

What he’s doing is called war driving, a term derived from the 1983 film War Games, which featured Matthew Broderick as a proto-hacker. In fact, one of the networks he encounters is named “war drivers: please go away.”

Back in the ’90s, as wireless Internet was emerging, the phenomenon of war chalking emerged in dense, tech-smart cities like New York, Seattle and Boston. Chalkers marked on the sidewalk where open signals were. Today, any big-box electronics store will sell you a Wi-Fi-finding device. Kensington makes one that fits on a keychain: Press the button and green lights will appear if a signal is present. So war chalking is a little outmoded. But some hackers still like to nose around, pointing out (and sometimes exploiting) security holes and unguarded information.

Raymond’s using a program called NetStumbler, which searches for the signal and logs any data available about the network, which feels like the equivalent of looking in people’s open windows as the car drives by. Several belong to restaurants, banks and hotels. He doesn’t use a single network until arriving downtown, where the city of Raleigh offers free wireless access on Fayetteville Street Mall. Like Durham, it pays WindChannel Communications to provide the service for free.

It’s lunchtime and lots of people are milling around. Most look like they’re in the mood to get away from the computer; Raymond seems to be the only one using the service. Restaurants nearby advertise their own free wireless networks for customers, and some seem to be booted up. Overall, Chapel Hill, RTP and Raleigh are pretty connected: He logged nearly 1,000 networks from the road.

But even in downtown Raleigh, turn the corner and the signal is gone. It seems strange for connectivity to be so elusive in such a dense area. Muni Wi-Fi in CH? Chapel Hill has been buzzing with the prospect of free wireless Internet. At a recent meeting of the town’s Downtown Economic Development Corporation, Nick Didow, its interim executive director, raised the possibility of creating a wireless network for Chapel Hill that would connect the town with neighboring Carrboro. Many businesses along Franklin Street offer free Wi-Fi to attract customers, and UNC provides some 600 access points throughout campus, but you must have a UNC account to use them.

“I don’t know that this would be a municipal system,” says Didow, who emphasizes that the town is in the very early planning stages. “There are a number of models, one being the municipal model, the second being a private, not-for-profit corporation, and the third being a contract with a private corporation,” he explains. What matters most is getting as many parties as possible around the table, he says, including UNC. “I would hope that we could configure something that would be completely free public access to serve this community,” Didow says.

Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy sees free wireless on Franklin Street as a step toward closing the digital divide. “One concern that we hear on the council is that not everybody has a computer and not everybody has Internet access, and we have attempted to address that by having plenty of available public terminals at our library,” Foy says. “But as things change in our society, the Internet has become part of how you conduct your daily life.”

Carrboro’s program follows the most innovative model, in which the town administers the network. About two years ago it launched tocwireless.net, a program that offers free access and reaches in and around the Century Center, Town Hall, the Town Commons and the ArtsCenter, with plans to expand throughout Carr Mill Mall and the WCOM radio tower by July. This cost a mere $5,000, because the town had already shelled out the $80,000 to lay down fiber-optic cable as a way to connect town buildings. Donated equipment and bandwidth from local businesses, Weaver Street Market in particular, kept the cost down. The town provides firewall security protection. Andy Vogel, the town’s information and technology officer, says hiring a private company to offer turn-key public Internet access wasn’t economically feasible. “We don’t have the money to do it that way.” But given that there was bandwidth to spare, “if the public can use it, that’s a better use of their tax dollars.” So far, the town hasn’t heard any complaints from industry.

It’s been more than worth it, says Mayor Mike Nelson. “We did it for two reasons. One is economic development.” Free public access to the Internet attracts people who are likely to shop or eat downtown. “The other reason is, there is a symbolic aspect to this as well,” Nelson says. “We’re demonstrating that we are on the cutting edge of technology. It sets the tone to let people know this is a place they can come and live and do business. We’re looking to the future. We’re open to change.”

The next step could make the biggest difference. “We’ve done the hard part,” Nelson says. “One of my personal goals is to expand our wireless network as soon as possible to the part of downtown that abuts some of the less affluent neighborhoods.” That would mean creating an access point that could reach out to the neighborhoods of Midway, Carr Court and Lloyd Street-Broad Street near the Chapel Hill line. It’s unlikely that anyone checking e-mail on the Weaver Street Lawn has canceled his Road Runner connection; Nelson knows that. “Once we get wireless into that part of town, we may actually be increasing people’s access to the Internet in a way that we can’t now.”

Imagine being a high school student today without an Internet connection at home, and you can imagine the difference such a program can make. “If wireless were available more freely in our community, it would provide access to many families who currently do not have access to the Internet,” says Ray Reitz, chief technology officer for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro School System. More than 100 families take advantage of the school system’s home loaner program, which allows students to borrow computers.

That’s the easy part. “The families are asked to pick up the ISP charge after the first three months,” Reitz says. “Some families have opted out of the program because they are unable to keep up with the monthly charge, $12.99. That is definitely a barrier.” Some families don’t have telephone service at home, making dial-up access impossible. That’s why wireless would make such a difference. “It we were able to come up with some low-cost, cost-effective solution either for the entire community or for some small pockets of the community, this would be a great benefit to them.”

Downtown Durham Inc., an organization that works to bring jobs and residents to the city center, approached the city about contracting with WindChannel as an experiment in economic development. The signal originates from the tower on top of the NetFriends building near Five Points, but with only one access point, it’s too weak to make it as far as Joe & Jo’s or the Durham Arts Council, and few people know it’s available.

Erroll Reese is thinking bigger. He believes an ambitious program like Philly’s could make a huge difference to kids in Durham.

“Wireless tears down the walls,” he says. Digital divide issues have been his passion since he founded the software company Free Web Inc. 10 years ago. He’s on the board of CTCNet, a national coalition of community technology centers. “The digital divide has gone beyond access to computers and access to the Internet,” Reese says. “It’s a paradigm shift into broadband. Broadband combined with wireless can be dangerous–dangerous in a positive way.”

Reese believes kids often drop out of school because school can’t hold their interest and that finding a way to capture the interest of young people with technology–particularly mobile technology–could steer them into high-tech careers. “I’m trying to find the killer application for the youth to keep their interests going forward, so we can retain them in our society instead of losing them to jail, to drugs.” Miles and miles You’ve got the idea. Now imagine a wireless Internet signal that reaches 30 miles instead of 300 feet.

WiMax, the next generation of wireless technology, does just that. It’s faster, more secure and more reliable than the Wi-Fi we’re used to. The changeover will be about as onerous as transferring our CDs to MP3s–in with the new gadgets, out with the old. Nick Didow thinks WiMax could be just the thing for Chapel Hill. Regardless of who runs it, the broad coverage area, improved speed, reliability, security and logistics make WiMax look like a good option for citywide service, he says.

As a technology, Wi-Fi has its limitations. A signal can reach as far as 300 feet, but it’s usually more like 100 feet. And one of the three channels Wi-Fi uses is the same one used by microwave ovens, which leads to a lot of interference.

As one of the nation’s most high-tech metro areas–one with some brutal commutes–demand is high here for a wireless service that’s not tied to a single access point. That’s why Nextel chose the Triangle as the testing ground for its cellular-based wireless Internet technology. Subscribers pay $40, $50 or $90 a month, depending on the speed. The trial ends this summer. Once its merger with Sprint is complete, the company says it will consider whether to permanently offer the service.

There are also experiments with sending wireless networking signals through conventional electrical outlets, meaning no new infrastructure would be necessary.

From the top of the Moore Square parking garage, eight floors up, you can see a lot of potential. That is, a lot of tall buildings with rooftop antennae, radio towers, utility poles–none of them transmitting free wireless Internet–yet. The only signals Raymond can pick up are from restaurants on the street below and a nearby church.

“Here’s a great opportunity,” Raymond says, pointing to the giant BellSouth tower on Cameron Avenue. “I’m less than half a mile away from this telephone company tower and I can’t get a decent Wi-Fi signal. One good WiMax antenna on that tower and they could get half of downtown. Even with a plain old Wi-Fi router, something you could get at Best Buy, you could cover up to a quarter mile from that height.”

To the southeast, between Shaw University and the Progress Energy building, Raymond points out a cellphone tower that could be blasting a signal to those parts of the city where $50 a month can mean the difference between groceries or no groceries. “Imagine, with one antenna on that thing, how many South Raleigh neighborhoods they could cover.”

Sure, there are some kinks you’d have to work out, like security, network administration, possible interference and getting equipment to the residents. But suddenly the towers are popping out of the landscape–radio towers, water towers, church steeples.

What are we waiting for?

What’s wi-fi?

Wi-Fi is short for wireless fidelity. It’s a set of wireless networking standards that use three channels: 802.11a, 802.11b or 802.11g. This standard sends a signal through the airwaves that allows computers with compatible devices to connect with each other and with the Internet through an access point, usually a router that connects to a wired modem. Any Wi-Fi card can pick up any Wi-Fi signal, regardless whether you’re using a Mac or a PC, etc. But with only three channels (one of which is also used by microwave ovens), overlapping signals can cause problems with reception. Wi-Fi signals can reach 200-300 yards.

What’s wimax?
WiMax is the next generation of wireless signal. It operates on a different frequency and uses the specification 802.16. A WiMax signal can travel up to 30 miles, better penetrate buildings, and carry more data faster than a wifi signal. In order to use WiMax, users would have to convert their equipment to the new standard. Prices are coming down for WiMax, which could make it more cost efficient for business and, eventually, consumers. But the growing popularity of Wi-Fi has so far prevented WiMax from taking off.

Muni Wi-Fi across the U.S.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Philly’s ambitious public wireless offering has been making big headlines. All 135 square miles and 1.5 million citizens will be connected by a mesh of 4,000 Wi-Fi access points through the nation’s most intensely watched municipal program. The estimated costs show the affordability of Wi-Fi technology: $10 million to implement the system and $1.5 million per year to maintain it. Monthly subscription rates of $15-30 are half that of the city’s commercial Internet service providers. And those providers aren’t happy: Philadelphia’s plan went through only after heated negotiations with Verizon and Comcast, who lobbied the state’s legislature to prohibit future muni wireless plans.

Portland, Oregon
One of the nation’s most technologically advanced cities is home to an ambitious grassroots citizen-driven Wi-Fi movement. Volunteers from the Personal Telco Project set up wireless access points in parks and on rooftops all over town. Much of the equipment is donated from Intel and other tech companies that manufacture equipment. The nonprofit has also partnered with coffeeshops and other private businesses willing to offer hotspots to the general public, free of charge.

Atlanta, Georgia
Last April, Atlanta rolled out a citywide community Wi-Fi initiative called Atlanta FastPass through a public-private partnership with a telecom company. Citizens can buy day passes or monthly subscriptions which offer access to all of the city’s hotspots. Mayor Shirley Franklin has made the project a priority, citing the benefits for education, streamlining city services, and bridging the digital divide.

Rio Rancho, New Mexico
This small city near Albuquerque established one of the first citywide Wi-Fi programs, giving access to all of its 63,000 citizens. Working with a private company, Ottawa Wireless of Michigan, the city installed more than 100 access points on light poles, traffic lights and police antennas to cover 103 square miles. The city is in-between two national laboratories and is home to Intel’s largest microprocessor factory, so many of its citizens work in technology. The wireless program is an economic development tool to attract residents and businesses. It’s also a revenue generator for the city: Residents pay $19.95 per month to the city, which pays a modest fee for service to Ottawa.

Champaign-Urbana, Illinois
The Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network is on the cutting edge of municipal wireless, using rooftop access points to connect neighborhoods, businesses and community groups. The network is developed through cooperation between local businesses, libraries, technology companies and the University of Illinois. This town-gown collaboration aims not only to connect citizens to the Internet, but also to develop open-source hardware and software for other community wireless projects to use, “and to build and support community-owned, not-for-profit broadband networks in cities and towns all over the world,” according to its Web site. The community was home to a national municipal wireless summit conference last summer.