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Wi-Fi in the Steel City

The city of Pittsburgh joins a growing number of cities offering Wi-Fi hot spots in outdoor areas like parks or business districts.

A growing number of cities are setting up Wi-Fi access in public outdoor areas like parks for business districts.

The latest is Pittsburgh, where an outdoor public Wi-Fi network was launched Monday. It is run by 3 Rivers Connect, a nonprofit whose major source of funding is the state of Pennsylvania. Private wireless company Grok Technology is managing the network.

The network, which became available for public use on Monday, is free to use for now. Organizers envision charging $20 a month for access once the network, covering a 4-square-mile area of downtown Pittsburgh, is built, according to Executive Director Ron Gdovic.

So far, the so-called Pittsburgh Public Wireless Internet (PPWI) project is limited to two downtown parks, Gdovic said. A pair of antennae on the eighth floor of a downtown building are showering the parks with 10-megabit Internet access, Gdovic said.

Pittsburgh joins the small, but growing, number of urban areas with public Wi-Fi projects. Officials in Jacksonville, Fla., and in Ashland, Ore., have created "wireless zones" in shopping areas and neighborhoods to allow people with wireless modems to access such networks for free.

Pittsburgh is creating the network to show off its technological savvy and attract new businesses to move there, Gdovic said. "We're looking to help Pittsburgh...be perceived as a wired city," he said. The city of Jacksonville created a wireless network to drum up foot traffic in an area of shops the city wants to revitalize, city officials said.

Wireless local area networks, or WLANs, let anyone with a laptop and a modem get wireless Internet access from up to 300 feet away. Although wireless LANs operate through the 802.11 standard, there is an alphabet soup of versions of 802.11 that have varying levels of security or speed.

For example, the wildly popular Wi-Fi networks operate on 802.11b, but 802.11a and 802.11g have been developed to be more secure or to travel on more channels. The 802.11b version runs on three channels in the unregulated 2.4GHZ spectrum, which is also used by cordless phones, microwave ovens, and many Bluetooth products. Because the information is transmitted through the air, a person can "capture" the information as it travels.

The 802.11a strain is an approved standard that broadcasts a more powerful signal, running on 12 channels in the 5GHZ spectrum, and transfers data up to five times faster than 802.11b. There are only a very limited number of 802.11a networks, even though the 802.11a chipsets have been sold for nearly a year. While it is faster, it has not been backward compatible to 802.11b.

Another Wi-Fi standard, known as 802.11g, which is more secure than 802.11b and has the speed of 802.11a, is in the works as well, but it has yet to be approved by the appropriate standards bodies.