It might be time to cut the cord.
Wireless Internet access could become the norm along downtown sidewalks, parks and open areas of several East Valley cities looking to build so-called wireless "hot spots."
Tempe and Arizona State University officials are meeting today monday to talk about a wireless blanket that could cover much of Mill Avenue and the campus.
Mesa also is looking to create downtown hot spots "to encourage economic benefit," said Mesa E-Streets director Dan Brewer, who hopes to have a proposal before the City Council for a wireless system within six months.
And in Scottsdale, a report released this month by the Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce recommended that the city install wireless access points downtown to lure new businesses.
The Wi-Fi technology, similar to that of a cordless phone, allows people with laptop computers or personal digital assistants to sip morning coffee outside or spend an afternoon on the park grass without feeling separation anxiety from their e-mail accounts.
A handful of cities around the nation — from Long Beach, Calif., to Athens, Ga. — have scrambled to install Wi-Fi technology in their downtown districts, mounting antennas atop street lights and tall city buildings, reaching computers up to 300 feet away.
"It's like basic infrastructure these days just to be able to go online anywhere you are," said Shari Wakefield, Tempe's assistant manager for economic development.
The number of Wi-Fi hot spots has increased dramatically in private homes, businesses and fast-food restaurants such as McDonald's and Schlotzsky's Delis. Several Tempe businesses, including Starbucks, Coffee Plantation, Mill’s End cafe and eJoy cafe, all offer wireless access, though some charge a fee.
ASU students can study outdoors at one of five hot spots on campus. MBA student Jim O’Connor sits at the sidewalk cafe outside ASU's W.P. Carey School of Business to cruise the Internet, swap files with fellow students or transmit presentations.
"It makes communication 10 times faster," he said.
The technology is relatively inexpensive, both for cities and for wireless users. Many laptops and personal digital assistants are equipped to handle Wi-Fi. Others can be updated for $100 or less. ASU bioengineering student Woosang Cho slipped his card into his laptop Friday and was on the Internet instantly under a tree near ASU's business school. "At home, I don't have any Internet access," the 25-year-old student said.
Security is one of the biggest problem with wireless networks, and ASU officials are reluctant to open the university’s network to the public, said Bill Lewis, chief information officer for the university. The city and university might need a separate network to cover the campus and downtown, something Tempe officials estimate could cost about $2,000 a month.
"My response was, ‘That’s nothing,' " said Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano. "It lets everyone know that we're going to be proactive in seeking out and employing the latest technology for our residents and our visitors."
While many experts question whether wireless technology will draw people to coffee bars en masse, Mill’s End owner Cory Starr can attest to its merits. "It's getting us a lot of new customers," he said.