Yet Toledo was one of several midsize cities to place in the top half of the 100-city survey, and Mr. Sperling notes that they have shown a unique appreciation for the technology: Nationwide, 15 percent of hotspots are free; in midsize cities, that jumps to 30 percent.
Still, it is the larger cities that are beginning to embrace bold plans to offer wireless Internet to all their residents.
Philadelphia and San Francisco are already planning citywide public wireless networks. And a private developer recently spent $5 million to cover 700 square miles of Oregon's desolate eastern outback with wireless access.
Though the landscapes are radically different, the goal is the same: to ensure that those frequently ignored by Internet providers - the poor and the remote - have access to high-speed Internet.
Moreover, setting up extensive wireless networks - or "clouds" - to cover a city could allow city officials such as building inspectors or social caseworkers to create mobile offices. In fact, Toledo has already established a private citywide wireless network - separate from the public ones charted by Intel - open only to police and fire officials.
When the project is finished, "all the resources available to an officer sitting at his desk will be available in the squad car - maps, phone numbers, mug shots" says Lt. David Holt of the Toledo Police Department.
Toledo's experience, however, shows the difficulties that lie ahead. Its secure system for police and fire officials has often been disrupted by other wireless signals. "When [a certain TV station] does a broadcast, their truck blasts us out of the water," says Lieutenant Holt.
Moreover, businesses offering public access have in some cases been underwhelmed by the response. Brewed Awakenings, for one, stopped offering it altogether. Yet Sperling of BestPlaces sees a clear trendline, and he expects wireless to become as ubiquitous as mobile phones. "After the technology reaches a certain point, it starts becoming mainstream."
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