By Katie Fehrenbacher
Mountain View, California
City-wide wi-fi networks are beginning to be rolled out across the United States. One of the most high-profile is a network operated by search giant Google.
Google's home is in Mountain View
While poring over hidden charges on your cell phone bill, or writing hefty cheques to your internet service provider, it's hard not to think there should be a better way.
Anything but high prices and no choices. Well, I'm starting to think there is, and I caught a glimpse of it in the city of Mountain View, California.
In the first week in August I drove down to Mountain View on a sweltering afternoon looking to test out the promise of free or cheap phone calls and ubiquitous internet access over a city-wide wi-fi network.
Thanks to Google, the city has been blanketed by wi-fi, which will soon allow its residents to connect to the wireless internet all over the city for free.
Using a technology called mesh, Google has placed hundreds of wi-fi nodes on lamp posts around the city that can connect your laptop or handheld device to the internet. For a town that gets the service, it's like living in a giant wi-fi hotspot.
And Mountain View isn't the first of its kind. In 59 other regions in the US, cities and companies have built similar networks, both fee and free-based, according to a research organization called Muni Wireless.
Another 130 city and countywide projects are currently underway.
Across the world there is also growing interest in countries from France to China to Macedonia and the UK.
Last year only start-up companies and early-adopters were willing to push the service, and major phone companies like Verizon saw the service as a competitive threat. This year large phone companies like AT&T are getting into the business.
In Mountain View, the story is a bit different. There are no other city-wide wi-fi networks in the world yet which are run by the high-flying powerful search giant that calls Mountain View its home.
The network has been speculated over for months, and isn't even available to the public yet, though somehow I snagged a place as one of the several hundred "trusted testers".
For that, I would spend several hours under a tree in a city park, with a laptop and a slew of cell phones, putting the network to task.
One of the most important characteristics of a network is its speed. The faster the connection the better I can download those YouTube video clips or iTunes music files.
Google has said that the maximum speed of the network is 1Mbps - in comparison, a fast DSL connection at my home is 2.5Mbps.
So not blazingly fast, but pretty good.
After several tests from different locations, the results were mixed.
In many places the connection was as fast as predicted, but the speed depended entirely on how close I had positioned myself to the node on the closest pole.
Too far away from the node, or hampered by a tree, the speed degraded by at least half.
Drop into one of the network's few "dead zones," where Google could not gain access to the light poles, and you've got nothing.
Boost the signal
Particularly frustrating was the fact that the signal is very weak in people's homes, without an extra piece of hardware to boost the signal inside.
That's a shame given indoors internet could replace cable or DSL-connections.
But outdoors I found with enough re-positioning it was easy enough to get a signal with a small amount of effort.
The next step was to test out the phone call functions, perhaps the most disruptive out of all the applications for city-wide wi-fi networks.
Phone calls over a wi-fi connection, have the ability to bypass the cellular network and cut expensive cell phone calls completely out of the loop.
This is one reason the traditional phone companies had been fighting tooth and nail to slow down or block the service.
I opened up a piece of software called Skype, which was bought by eBay last year for billions of dollars, and enables its millions of users to call each other over laptops and handheld devices for free.
I put on my headset, connected to my laptop, and placed a call.
For the first two attempts, I could hear my friend, but he couldn't hear me. I moved around a bit and found a better signal. On the third try I had success, and a free call over a free network.
It just took some effort to get it going.
The next test was placing calls over a handheld wi-fi device, which mimics the ease of use of a traditional cell phone and is better than lugging around your laptop and headset.
I used the Nokia 770 internet tablet, running a piece of software called the Gizmo Project that can send a call over wi-fi and connect to anyone on the regular telephone system.
On my first try I connected easily, but discovered there was a noticeable lag time between when I spoke and the other person heard me. Not enough to abandon the call, but like I was calling halfway around the world.
After several hours grilling Google's Mountain View wi-fi network I realised both the power of the service, but also the present-day limitations and youth of the technology.
While the service was ubiquitous throughout the city, it's not as reliable, as fast, or as easy to use, as my home internet connection or my cell phone. Not yet anyway.
Start-up companies and major manufacturers are working on all these issues. They just take time.
Then again, I still can't get a cell phone signal on major stretches of a Silicon Valley freeway.
If I get tired enough of my cell phone bill, or my internet service provider's pricey broadband package, I know there's starting to be options out there.
With companies like Google, and the hundreds of companies working on products for wi-fi networks, I can already get an alternative today. I just might have to move to Mountain View.
Katie Fehrenbacher is a staff writer for the GigaOm website