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Garbage collection. Police protection. And now Wi-Fi access. A growing number of towns and cities are starting to provide free high-speed wireless Internet access in parks and downtown areas. St. Cloud, FL, a suburb of Orlando, is one of the latest on the free-Wi-Fi bandwagon. Starting this summer, eight blocks in downtown St. Cloud will have coverage. And by early next year, a newly constructed, 2.4-square-kilometer business and residential development will open with free Wi-Fi. “This is a great service that we as a city should provide, like all other services like electricity, water, trash pickup,” says Glenn Sangiovanni, St. Cloud’s mayor, who says many residents either can’t get or can’t afford broadband in their homes.

Dozens of other cities around the world-from Tallahassee, FL, to Tucson, AZ, to Hamburg, Germany-are also beginning to offer Wi-Fi. And their number should soon explode, says Gerry Purdy, an analyst with MobileTrax, a Cupertino, CA, wireless-technology research firm. Between such free services and others that charge fees, “by the end of the decade, most municipal areas will either have Wi-Fi implemented or be in the process of planning it,” Purdy predicts.

The new trend promises to save Internet users money in several ways. With new mobile phones coming out within the next year that can send and receive Wi-Fi signals (see “One Person, One Phone,” TR March 2004), users will be able to make cheap phone calls over Wi-Fi while walking around town. And commercial wireless Internet service providers will likely face pressure to cut fees, says John Yunker, an analyst with Pyramid Research in Cambridge, MA. Why pay for Wi-Fi in Starbucks when you can sip your latte and surf the Web for free in the nearby park?

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