Last month, Southern Trains announced it was rolling out Wi-Fi access along its London to Brighton route. For about the cost of a bacon sandwich, commuters will soon be able enjoy internet access as they race across the Ouse viaduct.

Not to be outdone, service station operator Moto said it was installing Wi-Fi hotspots at 43 of its motorway locations and you will even be able to check email at 35,000 feet: Boeing is installing Wi-Fi access points in its new fleet of long-haul aircraft.



Wi-Fi, short for wireless fidelity, is the branding given to interoperability-tested products based on IEEE 802.11, an industry standard that allows data to be sent over the radio spectrum rather than through a cable or phone line. Now a standard feature on all but the cheapest laptops, the protocol is coming pre-packaged in a variety of electronic devices including mobile phones, palmtop computers and even the latest Nintendo games console.



Until now, only a patchy blanket of disparate wireless networks has allowed these devices to connect to the internet and it has been difficult for users to roam between those networks since most cover only small geographical areas.



But that is changing. Philadelphia is steaming ahead with an ambition to become the world’s most wired – or unwired – city, with a $10m (£5.5m) plan to bathe 135 square miles with wireless coverage – potentially accessible by 1.5m residents. Over the next 18 months, more than 4,000 wireless antennae will be attached to the city’s lampposts, trans mitting free internet access into the city’s parks and public places. But, more controversially, Philadelphia’s residents and businesses will also be tempted with wireless broadband for about the cost of a dial-up connection. According to the mayor, John F Street, Philadelphia is “singularly obsessed” with bringing the benefits of high-speed internet access “anywhere, anytime, to anyone that needs it”.



Cities as diverse as New York, Taipei, Calgary and Adelaide are competing to launch similar “muni nets”. Smaller scale networks have been deployed on corporate and university campuses and, more recently, in large shopping areas, such as a 42-square block section of downtown St Louis, Missouri. Smaller US cities, such as Salem and Austin, offer city-wide wireless access, while in Europe, the genteel Dutch city of Leiden offers a foretaste of the wireless city.



The UK picture is more parochial, though no less passionate. A patchwork of smaller wireless networks, often funded by local councils, is beginning to blossom. Yesterday, Access to Broadband, a pressure group partially funded by the government, reported to the Department for Trade and Industry that there were at least 550 smaller scale wireless networks operating in towns and villages across the UK. Nearly 90% employ wireless networking. These tiny, cooperative projects are in remote corners, but what they have in common with Philadelphia is that they have been established in the wake of the market’s failure to deliver affordable high-speed internet connections to everyone who needs it. The rural outposts going wireless are those that feel they are poorly served by BT.



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