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MV goes Googly over citywide free Wi-Fi

After receiving "overwhelmingly positive" feedback from more than a thousand testers, Google this week launched its free, citywide Wi-Fi network in Mountain View.

The network went live Wednesday morning. Documents were uploaded via e-mail, video was successfully downloaded, and surfing the Internet took only slightly more time than the average DSL connection.

Mountain View resident Andrea Robicheau arrived at Dana Street Roasting Company to do some work on the cafe's wireless Internet connection on Wednesday, not knowing Google Wi-Fi just launched to the public.

"I think it's fabulous," she said. "If it works out where I live that would be great, because our home Internet access, as it is, is spotty -- which is why I'm here."

Robicheau said she would like to cancel her home Internet service, use Google Wi-Fi and perhaps save money.

The estimated $1 million network, provided by Google to the city free of charge, was sought after by an overwhelming number of people during its testing phase, said Chris Sacca, head of special initiatives at Google.

"We can't keep up with all the people wanting to be trusted testers," Sacca said. "We need to open it up. Now we're just really excited and eager to see how many people use the network."

The attitude of the testers has been extremely positive, Sacca said. Even when people could have complained about connection problems the attitude was one of "How can I help?"

"Man that is so refreshing," Sacca said. "Today consumers often feel so entitled. I'm really grateful we did this project here [in Mountain View."

Locals such as Leo Wandling, of Internet company Expressnets, have volunteered their expertise on the network's message boards, where users with problems can go for help. Google is not offering telephone technical support. At the network's site -- http://wifi.google.com -- users can find information on the network, including a map of the city's coverage, allowing users to see how far they are from a Wi-Fi access point, or "node."

Sacca said Google is willing to accommodate users who request coverage in areas that aren't within the 500-foot reach of an existing node.

The nodes, made by Sunnyvale's Tropos, are small boxes attached to the top of light poles and have two small antennas. Google installed the nodes on 380 light poles and pays the city $36 per pole, or $13,680 annually. Google has agreed to maintain the network for five years.

Outside, near a node, the connection worked well for the Voice as long as a wall or tree canopy wasn't in the way.

Indoors, however, behind the glass windows at The Dana Street Roasting Company, the connection was spotty. On her laptop, Robicheau examined her choices for a wireless signal and saw that Google Wi-Fi gave her a much slower connection than that offered by the cafe.

"That's not going to do me any good," she said.

Google admits the network isn't meant to penetrate the walls of every building in the city, but modems are available to improve indoor connections within 500 feet of a node.

Connecting to the network will be easy for those who have used other wireless Internet connections. The connection will appear on the computer as "Google WiFi." By opening a browser to www.google.com the user may log on to a personalized Web page with news, weather and e-mail links.

Google will hold public workshops for those with questions ranging from the technically complicated to "What is a browser?" The next workshop is scheduled at Google's Amphitheatre Parkway campus on Aug. 23 at 6 p.m. Another is planned for the first week of September at a downtown location.

Speculation abounds as to why Google is providing Mountain View with the free network. Some say it's because the company has more money than it knows what to do with. Others say the company is trying to attract its workers to live in its hometown, while others say it will attract more Internet users and therefore more users to Google.

Sacca said the goal is to inspire other cities to do similar projects "by showing that they work and communities like Mountain View are happy to have them."

"If in the end more people are using the Internet," he said, "not only is that good for everybody, that's good for Google."

Daniel DeBolt

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