The Web Is in the Air

Craig T. Fifer, e-government manager for Alexandria, perches on the roof of City Hall, where wireless Internet broadcasting equipment is installed.
Craig T. Fifer, e-government manager for Alexandria, perches on the roof of City Hall, where wireless Internet broadcasting equipment is installed. (Photos By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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By Annie Gowen and Robert MacMillan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 10, 2005

A summer afternoon. An iced latte. A park bench in Old Town Alexandria.

All this and free Internet access, too.

This week, Alexandria began providing free wireless Internet access in its historic center, the first local government to offer alfresco Web surfing at no charge.

The one-year pilot program provides outdoor wireless service in an eight-block zone stretching from Washington Street to the Potomac River along King Street -- the Old Town main drag that attracts tourists and residents with its shops and restaurants.

The system, which relies on broadcasting equipment atop City Hall, the Torpedo Factory and a couple of utility poles, is aimed at outdoor cafe patrons or people who prefer parks to workstations, city officials said.

Montgomery and Arlington counties have similar plans for free Internet zones in downtown Silver Spring and around the Clarendon and Court House Metro stations.

Officials said they're thinking of putting one in Arlington's skateboard park. And a nonprofit group, the Open Park Project, is campaigning for wireless access -- known as wireless fidelity or WiFi -- along the entire length of the Mall.

Craig T. Fifer, Alexandria's e-government manager, said the city wants to provide a luxury amenity to its residents while testing a system it could use for more prosaic municipal tasks, such as monitoring traffic.

And it's great public relations.

The service will "promote Alexandria as a high-technology area," Fifer said. "We often market ourselves as a historic area, but this technology helps put us on the high-tech map."

In providing free wireless, Alexandria and other cities -- dozens of which have existing wireless Internet hubs -- in some cases have raised the ire of private network providers. Verizon recently tried to block Philadelphia's $10 million effort to connect the entire city.

Fifer said Alexandria's effort is narrowly tailored not to compete with or replace private providers. He said the network is not secure.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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