Web extra: Wi-Fi lunch is free, but dessert will cost you

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Wagering on Wi-Fi

When Philadelphia officials announced their plan two years ago for building the first public wireless network in a large city, it spurred some creative people to take action. The result is Wi-Fi access at no cost to taxpayers — but not in Philadelphia.

The city’s announcement piqued interests as far away as Savannah, Ga., and Cincinnati, where residents now have access to free wireless service in numerous public places. Barring setbacks, Philadelphia is still a year or more away from realizing its ambitious $10 million plan to bring Wi-Fi to the city.

In Cincinnati, a nonprofit group called Lily Pad charges local businesses $2,000 to $15,000 annually to sponsor wireless nodes — which they call lily pads — in public places. In exchange for a three-year commitment, businesses get their names and Web addresses splashed on their wireless hot spots’ home pages and on signs promoting the service.

Lily Pad charges higher fees for high-traffic hot spots and uses excess revenue to subsidize wireless service in low-income neighborhoods. So far, the group has created about 30 hot spots, said Ryan Rybolt, a Lily Pad co-founder. Another 50 are in the pipeline.

A group called Savannah Spanish Moss pays for public wireless access with contributions from that city’s businesses. Donations include free bandwidth from a service provider that sees the arrangement as an opportunity to sell its commercial services.

“If you give people a free lunch, you can sell them dessert,” said Chris Miller, executive director of the Creative Coast Initiative, a partnership that promotes the region’s growth.

To date, Savannah Spanish Moss has brought wireless access to half a dozen of the city’s historic squares, the main park, the promenade and a nearby island.

By contrast, Miller said he couldn’t find a wireless connection during a recent visit to Philadelphia. “It was making me nuts,” he said. “I just wanted to flip open my laptop and get my e-mail.”

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