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Walk on the 'Wi' Side

Marking the wireless hotspots in Vermont

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When Krista Evans arrived for her first year of medical school this fall, the University of Vermont gave her, and each of her classmates, a laptop equipped with a wireless Internet adapter. The UVM med school changed its curriculum two years ago, placing large amounts of information online. The wireless adapter -- a $30 to $100 piece of hardware installed inside a computer -- lets Evans hop on the Internet without plugging her computer into a phone jack or a wall. Now she can access her course readings from anywhere.

Well, almost. Anyone who pays for an Internet connection can install a wireless router, which disseminates the signal as a radio wave. But outside of several "hotspots" on campus, Evans doesn't really know where else she can pick up wireless, or "wi-fi" (rhymes with "hi-fi"). The technology is still so new, in fact, that many people still don't know what it is, much less where or how to find it.

The local business climate is mixed on the question of whether to provide the service. Free wi-fi hotspots are available at Speeder & Earl's on Pine Street in Burlington and in Essex Junction, but not at the Church St. location. "It seemed like a logical step," says owner Jessica Workman. "Our customers are really, really happy we did it."

Lee Anderson, owner of Radio Bean in Burlington, says he'll have free access by September 1. But Muddy Waters on Main Street won't be installing wi-fi. Carrie MacKillop, who co-owns the crunchy cafe, would rather not encourage the digerati to come in and hide behind their screens. "It's a philosophical decision more than a financial one," she says. "We'd like to keep the customer interaction up as much as possible."

Not that MacKillop has much choice -- if a next-door neighbor sets up a network, her patrons will be able to check their email while sipping their lattes regardless. The range of these networks varies. Some people intentionally ensure that it stops at their door, but sometimes you can still get a signal halfway down the block. And although wi-fi access can be protected with passwords, sometimes networks remain unguarded. If your laptop is in range of an unguarded network, it's easy -- and absolutely legal -- to "steal" access.

Even so, free wi-fi is harder to find than you might think. On Church Street they don't have to offer the service gratis; a local company called Soundtivity operates a pay-to-play network in large-scale hot zones that include most of Church Street, City Hall Park, Waterfront Park and the North Beach campground. Users buy access on their credit cards for $6 a day, or $28.95 a month. That's cheaper than T-mobile, which is available now at Borders and soon will be at Starbucks. T-mobile also costs $6 an hour, but it's $39.99 a month. Then again, you can access your T-mobile account in other cities, too.

If all this sounds remarkably unregulated, that's because it is. There's no standard wireless service, says Al Levy, president of Burlington-based Summit Technologies. "The world has not yet decided if Internet access should be a free thing or a paid thing." Levy, whose company is working with the Vermont Broad-band Council to create a wi-fi hot zone covering the Statehouse in Montpelier, compares wi-fi today to the early days of cell phones: Cover-age is spotty and prices vary.

Here, then, is a guide to official public hotspots in Burlington and beyond. If you want to steal access, you'll have to find it yourself.

But first, a word of caution from techno-savvy Workman: When you join a public network, your hard drive joins it, too. "My advice to people is try to be careful," she says. "I would recommend that anybody who uses public networks anywhere spend the 60 bucks on software to protect their information."

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