By TRAVIS REED, Associated Press Writer
Joe Lusardi's friends back in New York couldn't believe it when he
told them he'd have free Internet access through this city's new Wi-Fi
network. It's free all right, but residents are, to some extent,
getting what they pay for.
More than a month after St. Cloud launched what analysts say is the
country's first free citywide Wi-Fi network, Lusardi and others in
this 28,000-person Orlando suburb are still paying to use their own
Internet service providers as dead spots and weak signals keep some
residents offline and force engineers to retool the free system.
"Everybody's happy they were going to have it, but I don't know if
they're happy right now," said Lusardi, a 66-year-old retired New York
City transit worker.
The same troubles with the small town's big Internet project could be
lessons for municipalities from Philadelphia to San Francisco
considering similar networks.
St. Cloud officials are spending more than $2 million on a network
they see as a pioneering model for freeing local families, schools and
businesses from monthly Internet bills. It also promises to help the
city reduce cell-phone bills and let paramedics in an ambulance talk
by voice and video to hospital doctors.
Instead, what they have so far is a work in progress.
"All technology has its hiccups, and sometimes more than hiccups,"
St. Cloud Mayor Donna Hart said. "I think that it's going to be a
major challenge, and it'll probably be a major challenge for some time
until the technology is such that it works properly."
Wi-Fi is the same technology behind wireless Internet access in coffee
shops, airports and college campuses around the country.
Several cities have Wi-Fi hotspots, but St. Cloud's 15-square-mile
network is the first to offer free access citywide, said Seattle-based
technology writer Glenn Fleishman, who runs a Web site called Wi-Fi
Other cities like Tempe, Ariz., have networks over a larger area (187
square miles), but access isn't free. Planned projects in places like
Chicago and Philadelphia would also dwarf St. Cloud's network, but
also require a fee for access.
Google Inc. and EarthLink Inc. are teaming up to build a $15 million
Wi-Fi network across San Francisco, and their proposal is entering
final negotiations. EarthLink's faster offering would cost $20 per
month, while Google would provide a slower, free service financed by
St. Cloud launched the network on a trial basis in May 2004 in a new
division of town to help give businesses an incentive to
relocate. After further exploring the benefits, officials decided to
expand it citywide.
Project supporters say increased efficiency in city government will
cover the network's $2.6 million buildout and estimated $400,000
annual operating expense.
For example, phones that use the Wi-Fi network will allow it to cut
cell-phone bills for police and city workers. The city can avoid
adding 10 more building inspectors because the network will existing
employees to enter and access data onsite instead of driving back to
The network also could keep the estimated $450 that St. Cloud
households now spend each year on high-speed access in the local
As of last week, nearly 3,500 users had registered for the network,
logging 176,189 total hours of use. St. Cloud contracted with
Hewlett-Packard Co. to build the project and provide customer support.
"HP is working with the city and its partners to optimize the solution
and install additional access points to help improve signal strength
in isolated areas of the city," the company said in a statement.
So far, there have been plenty of calls from frustrated
residents. Some can see receivers from their homes and still can't
sign on -- even on the porch. Others have tried to connect countless
Still, HP said that there were only 842 help-line calls out of more
than 50,000 user sessions in the first 45 days of service.
At first, a desktop computer in Lusardi's house could use the Wi-Fi
network with no problem, but his laptop would only work outdoors. Even
then it was too slow and unreliable, so he kept his $20 per month
Sprint DSL service.
Now the desktop doesn't even work, and he's completely abandoned the
idea of dropping his pay service and using the network.
"It's just total frustration," Lusardi said. "I'm going to stay with
the DSL and just forget it, because I don't think it's going to
work. Very few people are going to use it, and they're going to say
it's underutilized and they're going to shut it down."
Lusardi didn't shell out the money for a signal-boosting device
St. Cloud recommends for those having trouble connecting -- City Hall
sells them for $170.
Fleishman said the fact that others share Lusardi's frustration is a
crucial technical and public relations problem for the vanguard
project. He said residents should understand many won't be able to use
the free network without additional equipment to strengthen the
"It's very large and it's very ambitious, so they're going to hit some
of these problems before some of the marketing and technology is out
there," he said. "Products have to catch up to this new market."
Fleishman said other cities would likely have the same problems - in
bigger cities, even larger ones -- if they didn't fully inform the
public of necessary equipment and network limits.
Former Mayor Glenn Sangiovanni, who spearheaded the project, stressed
that kinks were still being worked out, but noted that not everyone
was having problems.
"There's a lot of variables, and that's part of it," Sangiovanni
said. "It could be the block construction you have, it could be the
tin roof you have. There's lots of different things that could be
unique to your environment as opposed to my environment.
"We went into this with the expectation that it's really a year plan
that we're going to implement," he added. "You don't know what you're
going to get into when you take on the whole city because you can't
stress test that."
Ashley Austin, a freshman at nearby Florida Christian College, said
she likes using the network to do homework on the city's picturesque
downtown lakefront. She said it's also the only way to get online if
Internet service is down at the wireless telephone store where she
"So far I haven't had any problems with the use that I've gotten out
of it," she said.
Resident Chuck Cooper, a former city commissioner, bought an antenna,
but still gets a shaky connection. Navigating from one site to another
still produces errors.
Generally, he says, it's slightly faster than dial-up access. But even
critics like him are quick to praise the endeavor in between grumbles
over early problems.
"All in all, I guess it's a good idea," Cooper said. "I equate it to
cell phones 10 to 15 years ago. You used to have a lot of dropped
calls, but now they're substantially better. Hopefully, this will get
a little better a lot quicker."
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.
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