Public wireless Internet access -- or so-called "wi-fi" -- is becoming more and more pervasive across the United States. As this service becomes more common, many experts believe Americans will come to expect it, just like they expect their public places to have running water and electricity.
Take, for example, Theeee Coffee Chamber, a tiny café tucked between two warehouses on a side street in New York City. When you first walk in, you are hit with the familiar smells of milk and chocolate and coffee. The mellow music that plays softly in the background is pretty typical for a coffee house in this city.
But one thing here is a little bit different. Pretty much everyone in Theeee Coffee Chamber on this sunny afternoon is sitting in front of a laptop computer, using the Internet.
"I was just sending out some invoices for work I did last week," says Yonatan Zonszein, who lives down the block from Theeee Coffee Chamber. Mr. Zonszein comes here a few times each week and says he likes the coffee - but he can get that anywhere. He says more than anything, the free wireless Internet access is what brings him to this café.
"We don't have a signal at our house, and we don't really have the money to pay for DSL and everything else every month," Mr. Zonszein says, "So it's convenient. It's nice, because we need to use the Internet."
Theeee Coffee Chamber's owner, Tom Eisenberg, says his café has had free wi-fi service since it opened a year ago. Mr. Eisenberg says it costs him very little to offer this service to his customers - and it does draw people in. "It's definitely worked well," he notes. "We have this Russian computer guru who set it up for us, and it was his suggestion more than anybody's. And it's worked well."
Wi-Fi service is now available at about 32,000 public locations across the United States. Most places charge a nominal fee before they will let you surf the web. But the number of free "hot spots" like Theeee Coffee Chamber is growing faster than the number of places that charge.
A few national chain restaurants, such as Schlotsky's Deli and Panera Bread café, offer free wi-fi service to their customers. And several Internet sites help people looking for free wi-fi find a place near them.
One such site is jiwire.com, where David Blumenfeld is vice-president for marketing. Mr. Blumenfeld says public wireless access was practically unheard of just five years ago. "Wi-fi is really a phenomenon that's come on the scene in the last two years," he says. "It was pushed largely by Intel -- a push they were making with the chips that were coming out in a lot of laptops. But we've really seen public "hotspots," places where people can access the Internet in a public fashion, just come up in the last two years."
Right now, several cities in the United States are competing with one another to become the first to offer public wi-fi access to anyone on the street or in a park. Officials in Tempe, Arizona, say they should have their network up and running by February. Philadelphia started mounting antennas on streetlights and utility poles earlier this year. San Francisco, Cleveland, and Atlanta have also put together plans to offer public wireless Internet service.
And officials in New Orleans recently announced they would start building a free, public wi-fi network even before the city's hurricane-damaged levee system has been repaired. David Blumenfeld says that is because municipal wi-fi really is not just about offering the service to citizens and bridging the so-called "digital divide." It is about emergency preparedness.
"Communications is key. And with emergency services and things that people rely on for basic infrastructure in a city, it's going to be highly beneficial," Mr. Blumenfeld says. "I think you've heard different sales pitches from cities, as far as the fact that free wi-fi will help low-income people. And while that may be true, I think the one missing piece there is it's great to have free low-cost Internet access, but do those people have the devices to connect in the first place?"
The idea of free municipal wi-fi has not proven to be very popular with existing Internet service providers. Large telephone companies have convinced a few states to pass laws preventing local governments from launching their own Internet networks. And just hours after officials in New Orleans announced their plans, the regional telephone company BellSouth rescinded its offer to let the city use one of the company's buildings as a new police headquarters.
BellSouth officials have insisted the decision had nothing to do with New Orleans' plans to offer free municipal wi-fi.