Unwired in San Francisco

By Todd Woody

April 01, 2003

Todd Woody Commercial and community Wi-Fi advocates are creating a wireless web across the city by the Bay. Is Sydney far behind? (From australia.Internet.com)

The wireless future has arrived -- in San Francisco.

In cafes, in parks and on footpaths, people are pecking away at their laptops and tapping into wireless broadband access, often for free.

As Wi-Fi networks begin to spread in Sydney and other cities, the San Francisco experience offers a glimpse of how the untethered life could evolve in Australia. The good news is that widespread wireless Internet access can be a reality; the bad news is that the future may not necessarily unfold in ways that will please commercial wireless providers.

Returning to San Francisco after 18 months in Sydney, I picked up my car, reactivated my mobile phone service and turned on the Wi-Fi card in my iBook. Much to my surprise, a signal appeared, giving me a choice of three local networks. When I bought the laptop shortly before moving to Sydney in October 2001, Apple's Airport option seemed a fairly gratuitous feature. Sure, I could wirelessly roam between the four walls of my home, but so what? In my Sydney neighbourhood, there were no wireless signals landing at my Airport.

But in my absence from California, wireless networks began to multiply across San Francisco. The 126-square kilometre city perched on the end of a peninsula is a natural laboratory for building wireless networks for the masses. San Francisco is densely populated, meaning that each wireless base station can reach a sizeable slice of the population -- a demographic that includes a disproportionate number of techies and proverbial early adopters.

Wireless providers like T-Mobile have been quick to jump on that opportunity. Go into just about any one of the hundreds of Starbucks cafes in the San Francisco area and you'll find Wi-Fi access for US10 cents a minute. A subscription of about $US30 a month will get you unlimited access. Neighbourhood cafes that haven't yet been gobbled up by the caffeine king of Seattle offer Wi-Fi access through providers like Surf and Sip, a San Francisco wireless company

The question is, why pay? Wireless access can often be found for free across San Francisco As I sit writing this column in a cafi in my old neighbourhood, I can go online by paying Surf and Sip $US20 a month. Or I can just click on a free public network offered by a nearby resident who provides wireless access to his neighbours. All over the city, in fact, people are setting up wireless access points, sharing their broadband with whoever happens to be in the vicinity.

I found the free access for my favourite cafi by consulting an online wireless hotspots directory. But it soon became clear that hotspots are proliferating far quicker than such guides are able to list them. Stopping to have lunch in a park in the financial district, I open up my iBook and, voil`; I'm online transacting business with my bank in Sydney.

Later in a Starbucks I'm disappointed to find the only wireless access that pops up on my Airport is the paid T-Mobile service. No matter. I walk around the corner and wander into another free wireless zone. Of course, as Wi-Fi access becomes more common, so does the competition for an increasingly scarce commodity -- a cafi table adjacent to a power point.

This free ride could come to an end if broadband providers can figure a way to crack down on customers who broadcast their connections to anyone with a Wi-Fi card. Whether that comes to pass, the widespread availability of wireless Internet access is changing the culture of work in San Francisco.

My office now is just about anywhere I happen to be. All I need is my mobile, my laptop, a comfy chair or soft patch of grass. San Francisco residents have never hesitated to lug their laptops to the neighbourhood coffee house to get some work done. But now they're turning Starbucks and park benches into de facto personal corporate headquarters, breaking down the isolation of the freelancer and self-employed consultant.

Those who don't want to depend on the goodwill, and sometimes-inconsistent access, offered by their community-minded neighbours can subscribe to paid services like those offered by Starbucks. Given the ubiquity of Starbucks in San Francisco, wireless access is practically on every other corner.

As goes San Francisco, so will go Sydney, if the Wireless Community Project Node Database is any guide. The database (http://www.nodedb.com/australia/nsw/sydney/?) shows 765 Wi-Fi access points in the Sydney metropolitan area. (And undoubtedly there are many more that didn't find their way on to the list.) Only 58 of these, however, are currently active. But it's probably just a matter of time before Sydney cuts the cord.

Find a public hotspot in Sydney with Australia's most comprehensive 802.11 hotspot resource

Reprinted from australia.internet.com.

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