RealTime IT News

Wi-Fi Storms Atlanta

When you think of all the efforts offering free Wi-Fi hotspots, New York City or Portland, Ore., are likely to spring to mind. A group of southern wireless enthusiasts are trying to shatter that stereotype by kicking off a "100 hotspots in 100 days" public awareness campaign with the ultimate goal of a top spot on the list of most unwired cities of America.

Atlanta FreeNet, a three-year-old group of Wi-Fi enthusiasts, has around 50 "nodes" established by area individuals and businesses providing free wireless access to the Internet. "The goal is to add 100 hotspots," says Matt Smith, the group's founder.

The event's launch took place at an Atlanta coffee shop, a business long linked to the hotspot market. Since August 2002, ChocoLate Coffee, located 20 minutes from downtown, has offered its customers wireless broadband Internet access.

Vera Bettin, owner of ChocoLate Coffee, says she decided to provide her customer's free Wi-Fi access as a complementary service. Bettin, who "believes Wi-Fi should be free," says she gets "a lot of Starbucks customers." T-Mobile offers fee-based Wi-Fi access to Starbucks customers. A Starbucks is just two miles from ChocoLate Coffee.

The Atlanta coffee shop has a DSL connection offering what Bettin calls T-1 speeds to customers.

Bettin, whose shop is a regular meeting place for Atlanta FreeNet, says the Wi-Fi group's goal is for the southern metropolis to be named among the top five wireless cities in America.

Eugene Liu, a member of the freenet group, first heard about Wi-Fi from the activities of NYC Wireless, an organization of volunteers that has established free wireless hotspots throughout the Big Apple. Liu thought the concept of free wireless was fascinating.

On a business trip to Dallas, Liu visited a Starbucks and couldn't wait to return to Atlanta to seek out a similar wireless experience. Liu, now a 'core' member of Atlanta FreeNet is a free Wi-Fi network evangelist, saying "the benefits to citizens and commerce are enormous."

Indeed, Liu says one of the key audiences the new hotspot campaign hopes to target is businesses. David Boardman, an Atlanta-area consultant with fingers in many wireless pies, would add local government to the list of agencies Atlanta FreeNet hopes to interest.

Atlanta FreeNet would like to use Wi-Fi to extend the reach of the so-called Cyber Centers the local government is operating to provide free training to low-income residents. The plan is to allow people with little mobility to receive the training closer to home. There are currently about 17 Cyber Centers operating in Atlanta.

Boardman calls the Atlanta government enthusiastic to the idea of employing Wi-Fi to deliver city services. Already, there is Wi-Fi access available at the city's airport and city hall.

But Boardman believes the city government is still trying to figure out the difference between Wi-Fi and cellular wireless. The Mayor of Atlanta is proposing a city-branded Wi-Fi system which is viewed as a possible revenue generator. The consultant thinks the government has "not come to grips" with how inexpensive it is to operate a Wi-Fi node.

Along with being a Wi-Fi enthusiast, Boardman is a former Hewlett-Packard employee, a consultant, and holds the title of Venture Catalyst at Georgia Institute of Technology, an intellectual property position with the school.

Group founder Smith says that, although the major use of Atlanta FreeNet currently is sharing Internet access, the group is working toward making that less the emphasis and will start creating a backbone where the network could share free and commercial applications, including transmitting voice and video. "The backbone is the exciting part," says Smith.

While Atlanta is a Wi-Fi friendly city, the hilly landscape and continual urban sprawl is presenting problems, says Smith.

Atlanta is not alone in its desire to adopt free Wi-Fi networks. In late April, a spin-off of NYCWireless teamed up with the New York City Downtown Alliance to bring high-speed wireless access to the business district. The hotspots offer the possibility of a Wi-Fi hotzone "anywhere within a five-minute walk in Lower Manhattan," said a spokesman for Emenity, the wireless consultancy working on the project.

On the West Coast, in Portland, Ore., Wi-Fi activists have made that city the number one wireless city in the country, at least according to a study done by Intel back in March, outpacing all other cities for hotspot deployments at the time. Following Portland were San Francisco; Austin, Texas; Seattle; Orange County, Calif.; Washington, D.C.; San Diego; Denver; Ventura, Calif.; and Boston. Atlanta was number eleven. New York was only number 23.

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