San Diego Business Journal

In Old Town Temecula, the sidewalks are made of wood, the trash cans are barrels and rusty old wagons evoke an 1800s cattle-ranch ambience.

But as officials there try to revitalize the original site from which the city of 82,000 grew, they're cultivating an image that's more neo-West than Old West. And it's not just the saxophone-heavy Muzak version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" that plays over the speakers hanging from light poles.

Officials there are on the front edge of a trend that's spreading across the country: free government-provided wireless Internet service.

New Orleans introduced free wireless access in the hurricane-ravaged city last week, as officials there continue the long rebuilding process. Similar plans for free or subscriber-based wireless service are being developed in cities from San Francisco to Philadelphia.

In Temecula, just across the San Diego County border in southwest Riverside County, officials say they're hoping to attract customers to local businesses with the $13,600 system due online early next year.

"We saw this as an economic development tool," said John Meyer, Temecula's redevelopment director. "If you have a choice between the mall and Old Town, we figured the wireless network is just one more reason to come to Old Town."

Unlike the citywide system in New Orleans, Temecula's will cover just half a square mile and won't serve residential customers. Businesses that want the service inside their buildings will have to pay for internal access points.

Wireless Facilities Inc., the San Diego-based company installing and engineering the Temecula project, is providing equipment at cost while donating the rest of its services.

Wireless Facilities, which employs 300 locally and 2,800 worldwide, is reaping the benefits of the municipal wireless expansion. The company has a partnership with Google to bid on the massive project that will make San Francisco wireless. And in mid-November, Wireless Facilities announced it had been chosen to develop a wireless system with a public-safety focus in Tucson, Ariz.

That project will mount antennas on light poles throughout the city, giving ambulances a real-time video feed to hospital emergency rooms, Wireless Facilities spokesman Michael Baehr said. It will allow doctors to have virtual access to critical patients before they enter the ER.

"The wireless opportunity horizon is very much like the Internet boom we saw several years ago," Baehr said. "This is one more application of the wireless boom that we're starting to see manifest itself. It's very exciting."

Campground Connectivity

Wireless access is beginning to emerge in San Diego County , on a smaller scale.

The county's Parks and Recreation Department is putting wireless access in its nine campgrounds, spokeswoman Amy Harbert said, and hopes to have the system running early next year. Harbert said it will allow campers to easily access the department's online campground reservation site.

Free wireless is also available in the Vista Branch Library; by next year 12 of the county's 32 branches will have free wireless, said Jose Aponte, the county's library director.

Encinitas has wireless access available in an 18-block radius throughout its downtown, though it uses a different business model.

The Downtown Encinitas MainStreet Association was the catalyst, not the government.

The Encinitas system relies on subscriptions to be profitable, although it's free for three hours every Wednesday.

Unlike Temecula, about 60 percent of users are residential, said Peder Norby, the association's executive director.

When Wireless Fidelity, or Wi-Fi, debuted early in 2005, it was the only high-speed Internet access available in Encinitas, Norby said.

With a large lunchtime crowd coming from surrounding office parks in Sorrento Valley and Carlsbad, Norby said he believes Wi-Fi is just one more carrot to lure customers.

"The wireless industry is where the cell phone industry was when we were all carrying those bricks," Norby said. "It's in its infancy. There's no doubt in my mind that consumers demand mobility. It's just something that wireless and laptops provide. You don't have to be tethered to a desktop anymore."