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Unplugging the Grove

Wireless Internet nearly ready to go live downtown, granting free access to the Web

n the next few weeks, residents walking Forest Grove's downtown streets will feel a lot more connected. To the Internet, that is.

The city, in conjunction with Intel Corp., is revving up a two-year pilot program to offer free wireless Internet access in the city's commercial core.

Mayor Richard Kidd sees the wireless network as a great opportunity to draw people downtown and fuel economic development in the city's core, as well as add some convenience to day-to-day life in Forest Grove.

'You can go to your local barber and do your online stuff while you're waiting in line,' Kidd said.

Anyone with a computer and a wireless card will be able to sign on to the network with relative ease. Unlike Portland's new wireless program - which is funded through paid advertising that shows up on a wireless user's screen unless they pay a monthly fee - the only barrier to entry is a simple user agreement that indemnifies the city of any electronic wrongdoing a user might commit.

Kidd says that the area of coverage, initially about two-thirds of a square mile, could expand after the two-year trial to the Safeway Shopping Center on Pacific Avenue or the Forest Grove Tuality Hospital on Maple Street.

'At the end of two years we'll have to determine if it's used, how it's used and if we want to expand it or not,' Kidd said.

The idea of a free wireless network in Forest Grove began about a year ago, when Intel offered to donate $60,000 worth of wireless equipment built by Cisco.

According to Jeff King, the city's economic coordinator, the program's launch went through a few setbacks while engineers and staffers worked out kinks with the equipment and adapted city power and light poles to connect to the wireless broadcast equipment.

While Intel and Cisco have donated the time of their engineers to set the system up, the city will be in charge of running the program.

King says that the city can't yet afford to provide technical support or help users get online, for that they'll need to contact local computer vendors.

Lois Hornberger, executive director of the Forest Grove Chamber of Commerce, is excited about both the prospect of luring shoppers downtown with the promise of wireless.

She also looks forward to conducting meetings with her laptop around the chamber office, which has a wireless node positioned nearby.

'We want to call ourselves a 21st century small city, and that's what's happening in cities nowadays - I think it's exciting and it'll be to everyone's advantage,' Hornberger said.

The chamber helped lead the project toward completion, along with Pacific University's information technology staff.

But Internet junkies used to a high-speed cable Internet connection shouldn't cancel their broadband account just yet, even if their home does fall within the network.

In order to get a clear signal from the wireless transmitter inside of a building a $60 antenna-like device might be necessary. King said the city staff is currently exploring products that could work with the network to aid those who want access inside their homes. And while the wireless service will be a significant step up from dial-up Internet service, it won't be as fast as a high-speed cable or DSL connection.

Forest Grove joins just a handful of Oregon cities with city-run wireless networks. Lebanon, a town of 14,355 outside Corvallis, has been offering wireless Internet access for about a year and now boasts 800 monthly users. Tom Oliver, information technology director for the city of Lebanon, said the program had created a lot of buzz downtown.

'In downtown it's not uncommon to see someone sitting on a bench with their laptop or a contractor in their truck or somebody in one of the parks taking advantage of the network,' Oliver said.

Unlike Forest Grove's system, Lebanon residents have the option of using the service for up to 10 hours a month at no charge or buying into the program for $20 a month. While the city owns the network, a private Internet service provider handles the technical details.

Most of Lebanon's users are from out of town.

'A good percentage of the users of the network do not live in the city - they're people who come into the city to do sales or services they'll pull into a convenient place, fire up their laptop and check their e-mail,' Oliver said. In that way, the wireless initiative has served to boost the city's image.

'There has been a substantial amount of economic development in Lebanon and I wouldn't tie it all to the wireless network, but when you're recruiting, anything that you can offer to set your community off is an advantage,' he said.

And according to Intel spokesman Bill MacKenzie, the benefits of a free wireless system aren't confined to economic development.

'It's Intel's view that digital communities can enable local government to serve communities better, if it's used correctly, and give citizens greater access to information,' he said.

Along with Forest Grove, Intel has set up wireless networks in Corpus Christi, Tex., Taiwan and the Amazon.

'Just as we grew to expect that our cell phone would connect everywhere, we're going to grow to a point where people will expect wireless everywhere,' MacKenzie predicted.