THE WIRELESS WORLD

Phones, No. Wi-Fi, Yes
HERMISTON, ORE.
Population: 13,200
Why: Rural areas need the Internet, too
Fact: Thirty-five towers and 75 antennas broadcast a signal that covers the whole county

The phone and cable companies ignore the towns along the Columbia River in northeast Oregon despite the prevalence of farms, food-processing facilities, power plants and military installations that crave high-speed Internet access. "Sometimes it seems like we live in a third world out here," says Fred Ziari, founder of EZ Wireless, the 23-employee company in Hermiston, Ore., that decided to do something about it. EZ Wireless built the country's largest regional wireless broadband network, a 600-square-mile Wi-Fi blanket, and activated it this February. The network of high-power Wi-Fi towers and antennas allows users anywhere in the county to surf the Net at speeds equal to those of fixed lines like DSL. But users can also take their laptops on the road, driving 20 miles across the region while maintaining a connection the whole way--a trick Ziari proudly demonstrates by watching a "Lord of the Rings" movie trailer while cruising down the road.

The Sunny City Where It All Began
SAN DIEGO, CALIF.
Population: 1.2 million
Why: In the third unwired generation
Fact: Employs the highest concentration of workers in the wireless field in the United States

If wireless technology has a birthplace, it's San Diego. In 1968, University of California, San Diego, professor Irwin Jacobs founded a company called Linkabit to create the world's first digital wireless-communications network. Today, spinoffs like Qualcomm and Leap Wireless, as well as the U.S. branches of international giants like Nokia and Sony Electronics, popu-late the region. San Diego has about 150 wireless firms and the highest concentration of wireless workers in the country. A special program at UCSD even offers a degree in wireless communications.

So it's not surprising to see the city on the cutting edge. Last year Verizon chose San Diego as the second city (with Washington, D.C.) to deploy its new, third-generation "EV-DO" high-speed wireless network (page 65). A 250-member community group called SoCalFreeNet is trying to make wireless Internet access available for free, installing a dozen public nodes around the city and in the suburbs. Some of the most interesting action is downtown. In One America Plaza, an office building that opened last year, tenants on all 36 floors get free wireless Web access. And atop the building, a company called XO Communications has installed a base station that blasts wireless broadband at speeds up to 20 mega-bits per second to subscribers within a five-mile radius.

Old Town, New Zeal
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND
Population: 370,000
Why: Right on top down under
Fact: Eighty cellular sites around the city provide potential access to 1 million residents

Auckland is famous for sailing, aquariums, Maori culture and dinosaur skeletons. But wireless Internet access? In most cities around the world, connecting to the Internet means scoping out a Wi-Fi hotspot and sitting with your laptop in one place, or surfing the Net at slower speeds over a small, pocket-size phone with an uncomfortably tiny screen. Six months ago, Auckland became one of a few communities to deploy a single high-speed wireless network that blankets the entire city. Users can surf the Net at high speeds from the beach, their office, their homes or even a moving bus.

Upstart telecom firm Woosh Wireless developed the network. The four-year-old startup has challenged the city's entrenched land-line telco by installing three powerful wireless base stations around town. "Our vision is that in any corner of the city you can open your laptop and get megabit speed," says Jon Hambidge of IP Wireless in San Bruno, Calif., which provides Whoosh with the equipment.

Never Be Outstripped
LAS VEGAS, NEV.
Population: 515,000
Why: Phone, cable cos. can't match demand
Fact: Sin City has only four hotspots per 100,000 people--but the number is rising quickly

Even inveterate gamblers need to check their e-mail once in a while. Hotels on the Strip like the Rio, Circus Circus and MGM Grand are joining the worldwide wave of hotels offering guests Wi-Fi access in their rooms, usually for a daily fee of about $10. Dozens of cafes, Subway stores and Panera Bread bakeries will let you log on while you munch. And chances are, if you're visiting Vegas for one of its many industry confabs, some enterprising company has turned the country's busiest convention center into a free Wi-Fi hotspot. Perfect for blogging during boring presentations.

Like many cities with exploding population growth, Vegas is outrunning some of its utilities. You've probably read about the water shortages. Now Sprint and Cox cable can't keep up with demand for Internet access. So local start-ups like Verde Communications are trying to plug the gap with wireless access. Verde's clients include the food court in the MGM Showcase mall, a bunch of neighborhood restaurants and, most interestingly, many of the city's recreational-vehicle parks. One, the Hitchin' Post RV Park and Motel, which opened in 1970, uses Verde's Wi-Fi technology to hook up its peripatetic residents for $36 a month. "It's a huge asset that drives customers to my property," says manager Brent Childress. It's not, however, much of a moneymaker. Verde divides the revenues with clients based on how much they contribute to building the network. Childress says Wi-Fi "brings in a little bit, but probably not enough to pay the tire bill."

For a Safer England
LONDON, ENGLAND
Population: 7.4 million
Why: Crimefighting enters the wireless era
Fact: Soon, cops will watch over their entire stomping grounds on laptops and PDAs

Police Sgt. john bal-dock had spent many evenings staking out the doorway of the family-run Italian eatery Rosticceria Rusticana, where drug dealers plied their trade away from the surveillance cameras that dot London's trendy-cum-seedy Soho neighborhood. His big break came when the Westminister City Council's nerdy information-network manager, Andrew Snellgrove, stuck a tiny wireless camera in a lamppost across the street. A week later Baldock had enough evidence to arrest several crack and heroin dealers.

Police are about to turn Soho into the first wireless law-enforcement district in London. Over the next six months, Snellgrove will install 50 wireless cameras and sensors around the neighborhood. They'll take videos good enough to be admissible in court, and sensors will monitor noise and send out alarms when levels exceed normal. Because the cameras won't be fixed, police will be able to move them constantly, creating the impression that every inch is under surveillance. Crooks, beware.

The Untethered Apple
NEW YORK, N.Y.
Population: 8.2 million
Why: Lots of industry, lots of techno whizzes
Fact: Lower Manhattan has one of the heaviest-used Wi-Fi networks in the world

The Big Apple has something new in the air, mixing with taxi exhaust, the smell of honeyed peanuts and the blare of honking horns: Internet connectivity. Traffic police in the borough of Queens ticket cars with handheld scanners from Symbol Technologies. Carried by the cops, the devices link via Wi-Fi to portable printers and also transmit the tickets back to central computers. The city says it's saving millions a year with the $2,100 gadgets by reducing errors, and it will order 500 more this year.

There are 112 coffee shops, 60 McDonald's and hundreds of hotels all offering subscription access to Wi-Fi networks. But New York is also one of the best places in the world to log on to free wireless hotspots. Networks cover the Columbia University campus, Bryant Park, Union Square and the Chelsea Piers Sports Complex on the West Side of Manhattan. Grass-roots groups are also trying to cover their own neighborhoods with free connectivity. One group, Evill Net, stitched together a network that operates from rooftops in the East Village.

Boundless Baseball
BAY AREA, CALIF.
Population: 7 million
Why: The technology capital of the U.S.
Fact: All three regional airports offer Wi-Fi coverage, so road warriors can polish presentations

Here's another reason to envy San Francisco: along with beautiful vistas and relatively clement weather year-round, the Bay Area (S.F., Oakland and San Jose) was chosen this April as the most unwired "city" in America in Intel's second annual survey. Researcher Bert Sperling, who conducted the survey, says that "tons of interesting things are happening" in the country's technology capital. All three regional airports offer nearly ubiquitous Wi-Fi coverage. This spring, city officials in San Jose, the hub of Silicon Valley, launched a free service that covers three downtown public spaces (including the convention center). And at least 40 cafes in San Francisco and seven in Berkeley offer free Internet access, forgoing the Starbucks model of charging users for connectivity. Even the Giants' ballpark is a hotspot, giving fans the opportunity to pretend they're at the office when they're catching a game. They should probably turn off their laptops when Barry Bonds comes to bat, though.

Not Just Senators
WASHINGTON, D.C.
Population: 572,000
Why: Test city for a new technology
Fact: The nation's capital, though geographically small, already has 344 commercial hotspots

When you think of D.C., you envision lobbyists, limos and windy politicians--not a center of cutting-edge wireless technology. Washington is one of two cities (the other is San Diego) where Verizon is testing a new high-speed wireless network called EV-DO, the so-called third-generation wireless network. Users stick a PC card into their laptop (and, soon, into optimized mobile phones) to surf the Net anywhere in the city at about the same speed as a DSL connection. Verizon vice president Bill Stone says the service is targeted at business users who can do "everything on their laptops they normally do on their desktops, and they don't have to go hunting for a Wi-Fi hotspot." Washingtonians have other ways to cut the cord. Last month--with help from volunteers--private donations and equipment provided by Silicon Valley wireless firm Tropos brought free wireless Internet access to the eastern corner of the National Mall. Next: unwiring the entire two-mile-long Mall, Capitol Hill and all.

Don't Get Hung Up
TOKYO, JAPAN
Population: 12.4 million
Why: Many types of mobile technology
Fact: There are 82 million mobile phones in Japan, 20 percent on high-speed networks

Chika Matsumoto rarely puts her cell phone down, even when she's hanging out with friends at a hamburger shop or soaking in the bathtub. The 17-year-old high-school student is constantly e-mailing her friends. "I want to be aware of what's going on with my friends and not to be left out," she says. Her mother wonders: is this an addiction?

Just about every person over the age of 12 in Tokyo owns a mobile phone, of which a fifth are high-speed 3G phones that are Internet-enabled. "In terms of the variety of ways mobile technologies help shape people's lives, there's no other place like Tokyo," says Hiroshi Miyanaga, the country's leading telecom expert and a pro-fessor at Tokyo University of Science. Blame teenagers for creating an ever-changing culture around the phenomenon. "They pushed cell phones to get better and more fun, and the girls and mobile handsets are just inseparable," says Yasuko Nakamura, president of marketing firm Boom Planning.

From Parks to the Local Starbucks
AUSTIN, TEXAS
Population: 700,000
Why: Strong grassroots movement
Fact: The capital city has 11 hotspots for every 100,000 residents, including 50 free ones

Austin is only the fourth largest city in Texas, but it stands out in one category (besides being the state capital and the home of the Longhorns): it has more free hotspots per capita than anywhere else in the country. Users can pay to hook up to the Internet at Starbucks, Kinko's, Borders or Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Or they can hop online in any of the city's 50 free hotspots--downtown parks such as Republic Square and small independent stores such as Flipnotics Coffeespace and the Lovejoy Tap Room.

Credit a strong grass-roots wireless movement for helping to unwire the town. Since last year volunteers of the Austin Wireless City Project, a group that meets monthly, have been coordinating the city's free networks and helping residents and visitors get online with a single user name and password anywhere on the network. And "if there's trouble at one hotspot, instead of driving all the way over to investigate, we look at it online, see the status and fix it remotely," says founder Richard MacKennon.