Joe Lusardi's friends back in New York couldn't believe it when he told them he'd have free Internet access through this city's new Wi-Fi network. It's free all right, but residents are, to some extent, getting what they pay for.
More than a month after St. Cloud launched what analysts say is the country's first free citywide Wi-Fi network, Lusardi and others in this 28,000-person Orlando suburb are still paying to use their own Internet service providers as dead spots and weak signals keep some residents offline and force engineers to retool the free system.
"Everybody's happy they were going to have it, but I don't know if they're happy right now," said Lusardi, a 66-year-old retired New York City transit worker.
At first, a desktop computer in Lusardi's house could use the Wi-Fi network with no problem, but his laptop would only work outdoors. Even then it was too slow and unreliable, so he kept his $20 per month Sprint DSL service.
Now the desktop doesn't even work, and he's completely abandoned the idea of dropping his pay service and using the network.
"It's just total frustration," Lusardi said. "I'm going to stay with the DSL and just forget it, because I don't think it's going to work. Very few people are going to use it, and they're going to say it's underutilized and they're going to shut it down."
Lusardi didn't shell out the money for a signal-boosting device St. Cloud recommends for those having trouble connecting - City Hall sells them for $170.
[Glenn Fleishman, who runs a Web site called Wi-Fi Networking News,] said the fact that others share Lusardi's frustration is a crucial technical and public relations problem for the vanguard project. He said residents should understand many won't be able to use the free network without additional equipment to strengthen the signal.
"It's very large and it's very ambitious, so they're going to hit some of these problems before some of the marketing and technology is out there," he said. "Products have to catch up to this new market."
Fleishman said other cities would likely have the same problems - in bigger cities, even larger ones - if they didn't fully inform the public of necessary equipment and network limits.