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.

"We're not encouraging you to do anything sensitive with it, like balancing a checkbook or running a business," Fifer said.

Officials in Arlington and Montgomery -- which has WiFi in some of its libraries -- said they hope to entice private companies to install outdoor WiFi systems that would be free to the public and be of minimal taxpayer expense.

Alexandria's effort cost about $20,000 to start and will be $7,800 yearly to maintain.

Verizon, which charges Alexandria customers about $80 a month for wireless access, has no objection to the city's plan, said Eric Rabe, the company's vice president of media relations. But there are better alternatives to city-funded access, Rabe said.

Offering high-speed service, he said, is "complicated, expensive, and there are private providers who are doing it at no cost to taxpayers. But if the city decides they need to do it, we'd like to talk about working with them."

Many businesses in the area and at least one Fairfax County park provide wireless zones for visitors, but not usually for free. A search of JiWire.com, a national directory of wireless "hot spots," shows 65 locations in and around Old Town. The Holiday Inn on King Street, for instance, offers complimentary wireless service. Starbucks charges $9.99 a day for customers to use its hot spots.

David P. McClure, the president of the U.S. Internet Industry Association, said many municipalities waste taxpayer money when they provide such networks because they are used only by "very affluent techno elites."

"If you don't have a job where you can take your laptop and do your work in a city park, it's not going to benefit you . . . .We're just taking money from hardworking families and giving it to people who can afford [personal digital assistants] and laptops," McClure said.

Roanoke officials realized early that few residents were using the city's wireless zone in its downtown market, said Kathy Cox, the city's acting assistant director of technology.

"The younger crowds grab onto it fast," she said. Older folks without laptops weren't so interested. To attract more users, the city put eight computer stations in the zone. They pull in about 250 users a month, Cox said.

Local governments' venture into uncharted territory also raises questions about community needs that private companies don't often grapple with.

"Do we really want people checking their e-mail while watching a Little League game?" mused Jack Belcher, Arlington's chief information officer. He and his colleagues are still debating whether there should be WiFi at a new sports facility in Barcroft Park.

In Alexandria, anybody with a computer equipped for wireless access can use the service -- and most newer computers are -- though it probably won't work indoors or much farther than King Street. Consumers can click on the wireless icon on their laptop and choose "Wireless Alexandria" from the list of available networks, Fifer said.

Alexandria resident Che Jarrell, 34, a public policy analyst, has used the service to send e-mails fountainside at City Hall and from bookshops and coffeehouses.

"I think it's wonderful," Jarrell said. "I think every municipal government should offer it as a public good. It has positive benefits -- helping the populace in a city to be more linked to information."

Robert MacMillan is a reporter for washingtonpost.com.

Wireless access equipment is even installed atop streetlights at North Fairfax and King streets.